Yudith Marinez, a Texas Southmost College Criminal Justice student playing the role of police investigator, served as a witness and was cross-examined by fellow student Juan Lopez, who acted as the defense attorney, during a mock trial in the newly opened TSC Legal Center Courtroom on April 24, 2024. Retired U.S. Magistrate Judge of the Southern District of Texas Felix Recio presided over the initial TSC Legal Center mock trial case, taking his place on the judge’s bench to ensure the proceedings were carried out correctly. (Photos by Esteban Del Angel / Texas Southmost College)

By James Walker / Texas Southmost College

Texas Southmost College recently inaugurated the TSC Legal Center, which spans 4,450 square feet and features a fully operational courtroom and conference center. Alongside these facilities are a jury room, various classrooms, and the Cameron County Law Library, all supporting the college’s criminal justice, law enforcement, and paralegal studies programs. The centerpiece, a fully equipped courtroom, serves as a simulation courtroom lab where students can apply their classroom knowledge in practical scenarios. 

In late April, students from the Criminal Justice program at Texas Southmost College had their first opportunity to apply their learning in a practical setting during the inaugural mock trial held at the TSC Legal Center. 

TSC Criminal Justice program director and instructor Martin Morales Jr. wanted to ensure that the student’s learning experience was thorough from start to finish, so he quickly utilized the TSC Legal Center’s courtroom to achieve his goal.  

“Developing a mock trial involves intense preparation, dedication, and significant effort,” Morales explained. “After identifying the participants, we assess their preferences for roles, determining whether they would like to serve as defense or prosecution attorneys.” 

Once determined, Morales coached and trained the students on the prosecution side, while associate instructor Zoraya B. Aguilar mentored those taking the roles of defense attorneys.  

“Tell it to the judge” 

A murder was at the heart of the fictional case unfolding in the Legal Center’s courtroom. Students assumed the roles of prosecutors, defense attorneys, and witnesses within the courtroom, each with their agenda to fulfill to add to the realism of the case. However, this was much more than just a simple role-play exercise—the mock trial was designed to immerse students in a full courtroom setting and evaluate how they would fare in an actual legal case. The students involved began their initial preparation and training in early March.  

“Students attended training sessions twice a week on average, where they learned how to deliver opening statements, conduct direct and cross-examinations, make closing arguments, and handle all standard courtroom procedures,” Morales stated. 

To further enhance the immersion factor, retired U.S. Magistrate Judge of the Southern District of Texas Felix Recio presided over the case, taking his place on the judge’s bench to ensure that the proceedings were carried out correctly. Additionally, the twelve-person jury comprised a mix of student volunteers and cadets from TSC’s Law Enforcement program.  

As the trial proceeded, attorneys called witnesses for examination to build their cases, as would be expected in an actual legal trial. Judge Recio maintained order, fielding the occasional objection call from attorneys and carefully deciding what to overrule or sustain.  

After ninety minutes of proceedings, attorneys gave their closing statements and could only wait as the jurors prepared to fulfill their role. Before the jury deliberated their verdict behind closed doors, Judge Recio detailed how to approach their role as jurors and their mindset when trying to reach a verdict. After approximately thirty minutes of deliberation, the jury returned to the courtroom and rendered their verdict: guilty. 

“Regardless of who won or lost the case, what I hope they take away from this experience is a better understanding of the court system, how to compose effective arguments, public speaking skills, critical thinking, and early exposure to operating in a courtroom setting,” Morales proudly remarked. “When they continue their journeys in the legal field, they will have a head start and understand the magnitude of expectations for what is coming ahead as they pursue their careers.”  

TSC stands out as the sole institution in the Rio Grande Valley with an ABA-approved paralegal program, one of only 14 in Texas and among 184 nationwide. Additionally, it is the only school in Texas and one of just four across the United States that offers a fully operational courtroom and an ABA-accredited paralegal studies program.