The average citizen hopes he or she never has to step into a courtroom, but a team of Upper Iowa University students has relished the opportunity over the past two school years to take an active part in a pair of murder trials.
UIU faculty look to engage their students in their education through hands-on experiences, so it should come as no surprise that UIU Associate Professor of Business Christopher Kragnes Sr. and UIU Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Tiffany Kragnes have employed their professional experience as attorneys to provide students a unique opportunity to assist in a pair of actual cases.
The initial case was a first-degree murder trial linked to a shooting that occurred in August 2015. The attorneys filed a notice of self-defense and the client waived his right to a trial by jury. The case went to trial on July 28, 2016, and concluded on August 19, 2016. As of May 2017, the Kragnes’ and their client were still awaiting a verdict from the trial judge.
The second case concerned a drive-by shooting in Waterloo, Iowa. One victim in the shooting died, while two others were injured. Four individuals were charged in the case. One of those four, the Kragnes’ client, was charged with Murder in the First Degree and two counts of Attempted Murder. The defendant pled guilty to Intimidation with a Weapon, a Class C felony, and agreed to cooperate with the prosecution. He will be sentenced when the trials of the co-defendants are complete.
Participating students, upon the clients’ consent and after signing a confidentiality pledge and being trained and advised that they would be treated as law clerks and thus covered under the attorney-client privilege doctrine, were able to meet with the clients and attend all hearings and interviews. The students were provided an opportunity to direct questions to private investigators and other law-related professionals, such as toxicology experts. Students visited crime scenes and were given access to evidence and police reports. The result was an immersive collection of learning experiences.
“It is one thing to learn out of a textbook, but completely different to see and do it in real life,” Tiffany Kragnes said. “Students are able to get hands-on experience and work through the tough scenarios that arise and can’t be taught in a textbook.”
Lexis Fisher, a senior majoring in criminal justice, was one of the UIU students who assisted in the first case. The Seneca, Wisconsin, native was able to gain a better understanding of the court process and what goes on behind the scenes leading up to a trial.
“This experience has taught me how much time is needed to prepare a case and the importance of sorting through information in great detail,” said Fisher, who plans to enter the corrections field. “Being able to be a part of pretrial conferences with the judge showed me how much of an effect a family can have on what is discussed and how cases are different than what is shown on television and through the media.”
Students also met with the two UIU professors regularly to discuss trial strategy and the pros and cons of each decision. Chandra Smith, a senior double majoring in business administration and criminal justice from Bloomfield, Iowa, was a part of both cases.
“When we met as a group to review new developments in the case, we would discuss each piece of evidence or new information to see whether they helped the prosecution or defense, and how the jury would perceive the material,” Smith said. “We also watched police interviews and talked to witnesses, family members and the client to look for any discrepancies that could raise new questions.”
Smith, who is planning to continue her education to become an attorney, explained that being able to see all of the intricacies of an investigation and ongoing court case firsthand has better prepared her for the realities of a law career.
No matter their major, the students receive real-world experiences in the criminal justice system. Christopher Kragnes explained that past and current students involved in this experience have majored in criminal justice, business or information technology, but the opportunity is open to all UIU students. Participating students may volunteer their time or receive course credit. Current or future UIU students who wish to learn more about participation in future experiences like these should contact Christopher Kragnes at firstname.lastname@example.org or Tiffany Kragnes at email@example.com.