As the year came to a close last June, it continued to be a struggle for teachers to reel in their student’s attention. However, one department at Ledyard High School turned to outside sources to bring a new perspective to understanding terms learned throughout the year and inspiration about possible careers.
Olivia Mercadante, a public defender in Springfield, Mass., was one of the guest speakers. Mercadante’s presence was a first for the department this year.
“In the past, it had just been Marcy Pillsbury, the prosecutor,” Civics teacher Seth Galante said. “She had been talking to our government classes for years before we switched to Civics. This year we decided to add Olivia Mercadante to provide a different point of view on similar material.”
Mercadante has been a practicing public defender for two years and has successfully passed the bar exam in two different states (Massachusetts and New York ). After graduating from Boston College with a degree in law, Mercadante held internships, a two-month fellowship in Georgia working with juveniles and did public defense work in the South before moving to Massachusetts.
A public defender is an attorney who represents clients who earn an income below the poverty line. It is the public defender’s responsibility to effectively advocate and counsel their clients about their charges. Mercadante deals with different cases every year.
Mercadante will always take a case she is assigned no matter the charges against the client. “ I have no right to judge them and make statements about them,” she said. “A lot of (them) have drug issues, rough backgrounds, and mental health issues. I want them to feel good about me being their lawyer since they cannot afford one.
“It is not about guilt or innocence,” she added. “ It is about the Constitution.”
Public defenders typically handle more than 100 cases a year, however, about 90 percent of the cases never go to trial because they are disposed of through a plea bargain. A plea bargain is an agreement in a criminal case between the prosecutor and defendant. The defendant will agree to plead guilty to a specific charge in exchange for a compromise with the prosecutor
Junior Geralson Withrow, who was a Civics student last year, was one of the attendees of the presentation and was surprised by the amount of cases a defender takes on in a year. “I thought it would only be around 40 or 50. I was surprised to hear it was more,” Withrow said.
From presentations to hearing about real-life experiences, the Civics Department is bringing a new perspective to student’s thoughts on their future, one student at a time. The goal of this two-day event was to improve “knowledge about how the Constitution plays a role in their everyday lives and enrich knowledge gained regarding civil rights,” said Galante.
The department plans to invite guest speakers back this spring.
Megan Brawner, Editor in Chief