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Ashbrook Scholars Observe Death Penalty Appeal

A group of Ashbrook Scholars traveled to Columbus in July to observe an Ohio Supreme Court hearing, joining other college students in watching the appeal of a lower court murder conviction that had resulted in the death penalty.

In Ohio, all capital convictions are automatically appealed in the state’s highest court, a provision instituted to the cut the lengthy appeals process. On days when these hearings occur, volunteers with the Civic Education office of the Court guide college students in a tour of the building and then prepare them to observe the oral arguments.

Ashbrook Scholars at the Ohio Supreme Court

Ashbrook Scholars at the Ohio Supreme Court

Since Ashbrook Scholars practice the art of oral reasoning in every seminar, they followed the legal parrying with particular attention. To prepare, they had read legal briefs of the defense and the prosecution. The facts of the crime would not be detailed in court. “At these hearings,” said senior Joey Barretta, “there are no witnesses, no presentation of factual evidence. The arguments concern procedural matters”—whether the defendant received due process in the earlier trial.

Scholars commented that a thorough appeals process is warranted whenever the state decides to end a human life. Here, defense attorneys argued that at the earlier trial, a public defender was neglectful. Recent graduate Kelly Ranttila noted, “Public defenders notoriously have too many cases and little incentive to put time into each. That makes it more important to examine what they may have missed.”

Still, after watching the justices question the defense attorneys, Scholars thought the Court was disinclined to buy defense arguments.

Several Ashbrook Scholars observing the hearing have considered a career in law. Sophomore Ashbrook Scholar Katie Fossaceca participated in mock trial exercises during high school. “What I practiced actually happens,” Fossaceca said, except that at Supreme Court hearings, “the judges are constantly interrupting, asking for clarification.” Attorneys must adjust prepared speeches on the fly. “They have to know everything backwards and forwards.”

Afterwards, students met in a question and answer session with the attorneys for the two sides. “All four attorneys knew each other professionally,” Ranttila said, commenting on the genial and open discussion. “Even though they were critiquing the performance of attorneys at the earlier trial, they spoke of it as just part of the job. There would be no gain in holding these things personally—you might need that other attorney later. I really liked that.”

Ranttila just began studies at Ohio Northern University’s Pettit College of Law. She chose the Ashbrook Scholar program to build the skills law school would require. During her application interview, Peter Schramm told Ranttila that the Scholar Program demanded hard work but “would teach me to think for myself.” No other program had promised this.

Speaking after the orientation week for new law students, Ranttila expressed confidence that she is prepared for the work ahead. “We’ve already had some practice assignments which require close reading. . . . A lot of the language comes from the 18th and 19th centuries. Well, I’ve read a lot of documents from those centuries!” Moreover, “law professors use the Socratic method. They ask questions, call on you for the answer, then continue asking questions” until an answer becomes clear. “And there is not just one answer,” Ranttila noted.

“I don’t think this method will be as foreign to me as it will be to some other students. Many of them will have been taught through a lecture style. I talked to some Ashbrook Scholars who have been through law school, and they said, ‘You will be thrown into the deep end, but you’ll find you can swim.’”

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