Students Explore Mock Trial Options in Virtual World

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UNC law students and faculty will present a mock trial in the virtual world of Second Life at 1 p.m. on Sept. 25, in a project collaboratively developed by law students, the Renaissance Computing Institute, UNC Information Technology Services (ITS) Teaching and Learning division, and UNC School of Law technology office.

"Just like a regular mock trial, they will put witnesses on in front of a jury, follow rules of evidence, conduct examinations and present opening and closing arguments to jury," says assistant professor Richard Myers, who coordinates mock court programs at the school and will serve as a judge for the Second Life mock trial. "The difference is that it will all be done in a computer-based simulated environment."

Second Life is a three-dimensional, virtual world boasting millions of users, in which people can interact in real time using computer-generated virtual representations of themselves called "avatars." Although avatars can be creatively personalized to represent the user, those used in the mock trial should be dressed conservatively, says Myers.

Many of the participating students and faculty will be together in the same room while conducting the mock trial, however, this approach could allow people to participate from all around the world, says Myers. For example, some jury members will attend remotely.

The project began a year ago when students led by 3L Bryan Byerly presented the idea to Myers.

"One thing you learn as a professor in a law school is that you are surrounded by unbelievably talented students," observes Myers, who says he is eager to see the end result when the trial takes place.

Byerly, who also participated on the UNC Broun National Trial Team during his second year as a student, worked as a software developer before entering law school. After enrolling at UNC, he heard about the university's presence in Second Life. The virtual campus is hosted by ITS Teaching and Learning and was technologically outfitted by software developers Mike Conway and David Borland of the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI). Byerly saw their work as a venue that could provide students with additional practical skills training, and he worked closely with them to create a mock trial room.

The space, which is in a virtual room in a building in UNC's Second Life "island", and which is located at the Social Computing Room at RENCI in ITS Manning Hall in real life, was structured by Conway to resemble a courtroom. It's furnished with custom items - such as the judge's bench, the jury box, and the exhibits board created by Conway - and also with off-the-shelf items purchased at office stores in Second Life. Byerly was also able to find a suit for his avatar in the stores of the virtual world.

Students litigators for the trial include second and third-year law students Lauren Felter and Badar Tareen, as prosecution co-counsel, and second-year law students Mary Martin and Tristan Routh, as defense co-counsel. Witnesses will be played by third-year law students Kris Gould, Charlotte Hall, PJ Puryear, and Byerly.

Byerly is still recruiting jurors for the trial and says members of the media will be invited to attend as well. Attendees will need to set up a free account with Second Life and must be logged in at the time of the trial to attend. Visitors may visit the UNC Virtual Trial courtroom in Second Life.

A live stream of the trial will be shown on Sept. 25 in UNC School of Law room 4004 and on the LCD screen located in the school's rotunda.

Mock trial + virtual world = real learning from Renaissaince Computing Institute on Vimeo.

-September 18, 2009

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