By a jury vote of 8-4, the 14th annual reenactment of a landmark groundwater contamination trial led to a stunning not guilty verdict.
“In this year’s civil action mock trial, the plaintiffs failed to make a strong case and unfortunately omitted a key witness, Tom Barbas, who has been used in nearly every previous mock trial to establish dumping of Trichloroethylene (TCE) on the W.R. Grace property,” said Bill Simpkins, Department of Geological and Atmospheric Science professor and department chair who manages the annual event. “The defendants’ team did a good job of providing alternate explanations of where the contamination originated and, by doing so, convinced the jury they were not the guilty parties.”
Each year, Simpkins’ senior/graduate level hydrogeology class reenacts the 1986 trial that later became a Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction book and motion picture titled, “A Civil Action.” In the real-life drama, a group of parents of Woburn, Massachusetts children accused three companies of polluting the groundwater that supplied drinking water for the town. The TCE-contaminated water drawn from Woburn municipal wells is suspected to have caused leukemia, resulting in the death of eight children.
The trial reinforces concepts from the course, including groundwater geology; groundwater velocity and travel time; groundwater flowpath analysis; and groundwater-stream interaction. The 22 students assume the roles of attorneys and expert witnesses, including geology and hydrology experts. According to Simpkins, the trial is a great learning experience, an excellent group project, and a successful capstone for the course. A few other universities do similar reenactments, but Simpkins’ version is the only one that is used in a senior/graduate-level course.
There is no script for the mock trial. Students in the class learn basic trial procedure, then prepare a case to sway a jury of ISU Geology 100 students to a verdict of guilty or not guilty. “Judge” Erik Day, a hydrogeology graduate student and teaching assistant in the course, overrules or sustains objections and helps maintain order in the court.
Students enjoy acting their part in the trial proceedings, dressing up and bolstering their performance with artificial emotions – even tears – in the case of Anne Anderson, mother of one of the victims. Arguments between the attorneys do occur; however, tense moments of the trial are relieved by humorous activity. This year, a local librarian, Alma Books, played by graduating geology senior Justine Myers, withstood intense scrutiny under cross examination and countered that with a good sense of humor.
After 16 trials during the past 14 years, the plaintiffs now lead the defendants 10.5 to 5.5 (the hung jury in 2014 resulted in 0.5 points for both sides). In the actual trial 30 years ago, both parties settled out of court.