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March 23, 2013

History on trial in Peabody mock court

PEABODY — As the court heard the accusations against Capt. Henry Wirz it seemed certain they were reminded of past horrors, the genocide of the Armenians in World War I, the man-made Ukrainian famine, the Holocaust of World War II, the Cambodian killing fields and Rwandan massacres.

Wirz was the commander of Andersonville, the most notorious prisoner-of-war camp during the Civil War. In 1865 he was put on trial for war crimes. And the reason his judges could factor in a string of horrors yet-to-come is simple — this trial took place yesterday and continues today at Peabody City Hall.

It was mock court with 81 Peabody High School seniors and juniors playing the parts of Wirz, his accusers, his defenders and prosecutors.

“It’s the sixth annual mock trial,” said the high school’s mock trial teacher Abbie Gore, who picked the Wirz case. “Two classes put on the trial.” They are pitted one against the other and it’s a responsibility taken very seriously. “We’ve been doing research and preparing for this since January.”

The mock trial has the kind of impact, says Gore, that led 13 of her former students to seek out careers in the law.

Yesterday, with people including parents, Superintendent Joe Mastrocola and Mayor Ted Bettencourt looking on, the students showed a grasp of the Wirz case and the subtleties of courtroom procedure. Students not directly involved remained rapt as testimony was given.

“I thought it was great,” said Bettencourt, a lawyer himself, who watched during the morning and then came back for more in the afternoon.

“I was impressed with the performances of the students,” he said. “They showed a deep knowledge of the subject and they knew courtroom procedure. It was great to hear passionate arguments. At times I thought I was watching a real trial. They are definitely kids with bright futures.”

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