Class photo at the end of the trial.
Class photo at the end of the trial.

Mock trial jury says “Not Guilty” - again

A man wearing a hard hat has his hand on a book and holds a pick-axe while two others look on.
Expert geologist Steven Maslansky for the defense (played by Geology major Trevor Van Dyke) is sworn in by Judge Nathan Young, while the plaintiff’s attorney, Danielle Eads, looks on.

By a jury vote of 8-5, the 15th annual reenactment of a landmark groundwater contamination trial led to a “Not Guilty” verdict for the second year in a row.

A woman stands in front of a map and points.
Defense expert hydrogeologist, Crystal Geyser (played by Geology Major Erin Atchison), explains the flow of groundwater to City Wells G and H.

“This year’s Civil Action mock trial verdict followed a trend established last year, in which the defendants presented a very strong alternative origin of Trichloroethylene (TCE) in city wells G and H,” said Bill Simpkins, hydrogeology professor in the Department of Geological and Atmospheric Science, who manages the annual event. “The defendants presented the long history of industrial activity in the watershed to show other potentially responsible parties for the contamination. They countered the expert witness testimony for the plaintiffs, particularly that of Dr. Willamena Simpkins, portrayed by senior geology major Brittany Theilen.”

View of courtroom showing Thomas Mernin (played by Agronomy/EnSci major Elizabeth Schwab) being cross-examined by the plaintiff’s attorney, Lucas Haffner.
View of courtroom showing Thomas Mernin (played by Agronomy/EnSci major Elizabeth Schwab) being cross-examined by the plaintiff’s attorney, Lucas Haffner.

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, parents of eight 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 the leukemia that caused the death of the eight children. In real life, the case was settled out of court before it went to the jury.

The trial reinforces concepts from the class, including groundwater hydrology, velocity, and travel time; groundwater flowpath analysis; well hydraulics, and groundwater-stream interaction. This year’s 26 students assumed 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 implemented in a senior/graduate-level course. In the 17 trials that have occurred, the plaintiffs lead 10.5 to 6.5 (2014 yielded a hung jury).