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Supreme Court holds session at Tolman H.S.

April 13, 2012

PAWTUCKET — Of all the plays and performances that have graced the stage of Tolman High School, none have been so weighty as the session of the Rhode Island Supreme Court that took place on Wednesday.
In an effort to promote education and community outreach, the Supreme Court has revived the centuries-old tradition of “riding the circuit” and appears twice a year at an outside venue. Thanks, in part, to a Tolman senior, Admira Nkouka, having done an internship at the Supreme Court as part of the school's Law and Public Safety and Security Academy, the Pawtucket high school was selected as a venue for the judicial road show.
Mayor Donald Grebien was in attendance, along with former state senator, Pawtucket Municipal Court chief judge and newly named Superior Court Magistrate John F. McBurney, Pawtucket Probate Court Judge Christine McBurney, Pawtucket Bar Association President Edward Grourke, attorney John Finan, and other members of the legal profession and the judiciary with ties to Pawtucket. City Councilor Mark Wildenhain, and his daughter, Kailey, a second-year law student at Roger Williams University School of Law, also sat in on the court session.
“This is a treat for us,” said Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell, as he addressed the auditorium filled with students. “We love to go out into the community and we're happy to be in Pawtucket this morning.” He noted that the process wasn't easy, as it involved bringing a security system (everyone had to pass through a metal detector as they entered), a court clerk and several sheriffs. However, he said he and the other judges feel it is important to show members of the community, and particularly students, how the court system works to foster a deeper appreciation of it.
Associate Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg, who noted that she was born in Pawtucket and that her husband practices law in the city, commented, “This is one of the best communities in the state and this is one of the best high schools.” She lightheartedly told the students that she hoped this would be “the only court you have to attend unless you are a juror or a lawyer.” She also added that she tries to be encouraging to anyone interested in the legal profession, adding, “If you want to be a lawyer, come and see me.”
Both Suttell and Goldberg explained to the students, some of whom were from Shea and JMW high schools as well, how the Supreme Court functions and how it deals in the area of judicial error. They said they would be hearing arguments about three cases and would be considering if an error was made in the lower court that was so prejudicial that it warranted a new trial.
The judges told the students that the process was not like a trial. Instead, lawyers for the defense made arguments to the panel of five judges. The court would then deliberate, write an opinion, and issue it within a 60-day time frame.
That morning the arguments heard before the court were the State of Rhode Island versus Michael Ciresi, the State of Rhode Island versus Raymond McWilliams, and the State of Rhode Island versus Gary Gromkiewicz. The students listened quietly during the sometimes lengthy arguments, and saw firsthand how the attorneys were held to a high standard in being prepared, knowing their facts and being able to communicate their points clearly and respectfully.
The students heard attorney George J. West, representing Michael Ciresi, a former North Providence Police officer who was convicted on numerous felony charges and sentenced to more than 20 years in prison, try to convince the court that his client is entitled to a new trial. West argued that Judge Robert Krause abused his discretion by admitting evidence from witnesses of prior bad acts pursuant to Rule 404(b), and also by consolidating two indictments, and by denying his motion for severance.
They also heard Assistant Attorney General Lauren Zurier defend the way the state had handled the case, and particularly the use of the witness statements, saying that they were important to helping the jury understand the case and Ciresi's motives. She noted that it was a case of Ciresi being less than a virtuous police officer, and, while most of the the witnesses had been involved in illegal narcotics activities, it was believed that they were telling the truth in their testimony about him.
The court also heard attorney Lara E. Ewens, representing Raymond McWilliams, argue several points in trying to win her client a new trial. Chief among these was her contention that the trial judge had erred in his ruling regarding Rhode Island law on first-degree robbery. Ewens maintained that McWilliams, who threatened a women with a box cutter, stole her car, and abandoned it a few days later some 15 miles from her house, had not intended to “permanently” deprive her of the vehicle.
Assistant District Attorney Jane M. McSoley counter-argued that the state follows a “common law” definition of robbery where it is not defined as having to “wholly and permanently deprive another of their property” in order to be considered a crime. She also defended the state's handling of the case in other points raised by Ewens.
Lastly, the students heard from attorney Janice M. Weisfeld, on behalf of Gary Gromkiewicz, who argued that the trial judge had erred in finding that the state “proved to a reasonable satisfaction” that her client had violated his probation by failing to keep the peace and be of good behavior.
While a few students appeared to get fidgety and bored with the highly detailed testimony, most seemed interested in the proceedings, and the judges and attorneys received a loud round of applause at the end. The judges took some questions at the end of the session, replying to queries on how long it takes for an appeal to be heard, if there are times when the panel disagrees, and other law-related topics.
Kayla Bouchard, a Tolman senior who had interned at the office of attorney Benjamin Mesiti as part of the Law and Public Safety Academy Program, said she had enjoyed seeing the Supreme Court and the attorneys in action. “I liked hearing the arguments and seeing how they have to prove their point,” she said. She also said that watching, she found the debates between the judges and the attorneys for both sides to be “very competitive.”
Tolman Senior Brad McParlin said that last year, he had participated in the school's mock trial tournaments and found many similarities in the way the attorneys argued their cases. Of the Supreme Court session at Tolman, he, too, said he found it informative, adding, “I think this is good to have kids really experience what it is like.”
Kevin Dunphy, who teaches criminal justice and American government classes, said, “This was a great experience for the kids to witness what we talk about in class, and to see a firsthand account of how the legal process works in their own school.”
Tolman senior Admira Nkouka said she intends to go to law school and hopes to one day become a Supreme Court judge. She said she came to America from the Congo with her family at the age of five and recognizes the many freedoms and rights that are enjoyed by those living here. However, she added, ”I feel that, slowly, some of our rights are getting taken away and that needs to change.”


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