Three out of 10 Americans are involved in an alcohol-related car accident in their lifetime, according to statistics, and young drivers are especially at risk.
Contra Costa Superior Court officials hope to change that by giving teens an up-close glimpse of the consequences of drinking and driving.
About 250 Pinole Valley High students spent Tuesday in the school's cafeteria watching a real-life driving-under-the-influence case presided over by Superior Court Judge Steven Austin and argued by Senior Deputy District Attorney Dara Cashman and Public Defender Jack Funk.
The trial was one of four scheduled at high schools around the county this month as part of the "DUI Court in the Schools" program. Similar events have taken place at Olympic High in Concord and at Richmond High. Another will be held next week at Concord High.
"This is a great opportunity to educate young people about both the consequences of driving under the influence of alcohol and the courtroom activities involved in a real trial," Austin said.
Tuesday's trial at Pinole gave students a taste of the TV show "Law and Order," complete with a judge, bailiff, court reporter, student advisory jury, witnesses and the defendant — 25-year-old Manesha Carter, who pleaded not guilty to one count of driving under the influence of alcohol and one count of driving with a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit of 0.08.
But instead of watching Hollywood's neat, hourlong version of the justice system, students from teacher Patricia Blades' law and justice class, as well as history and driver's education students, got a more realistic feel for how evidence is weighed in court.
"Everybody has a preconceived notion of what a trial is like from TV," said senior Lonnie Ross, member of the student jury. "This shows people how the court system works and how the jury works."
Students heard testimony from two witnesses — California Highway Patrol Officer Brandon Pratt and forensic toxicologist Richard Bowden — who both described how alcohol impaired Carter's driving the night she was arrested and how alcohol affects the body in general. Through opening and closing statements and witness questioning, Cashman and Funk broke down the evidence.
A few students dozed during the three-hour event, but others appeared fascinated with the process, and the room was silent just before the verdict was read by the jury, which served on an advisory-only basis.
Made up of seven girls and five boys, the jury was hung after 20 minutes of deliberations; the judge found Carter guilty on both counts and deferred her sentencing to a later date. The typical punishment for DUI convictions is a fine, probation and alcohol classes, Austin said, but Carter's fine likely will be reduced for allowing her trial to be conducted in front of students.
The defendant, whose toddler daughter scampered about the room for part of the trial, said she deeply regretted making the decision to get behind the wheel after drinking.
"I wouldn't do it again," Carter said when asked by a student how she would handle the situation again. "I could have hurt myself and put my child in danger. It's not worth it."
Reach Kimberly S. Wetzel at 510-262-2798 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.