(October 2014)

August 2014 marked the end of data collection by Dr. Heather Hlavka (Criminology and Law Studies) and Dr. Sameena Mulla (Anthropology) for their research project, "Trace, Body and Voice: Sexual Assault and Forensic Evidence in the Milwaukee Court Sytem." The data set, which is currently being cleaned and analyzed, includes over 630 courtroom appearances, a subset of which includes 30 full sexual assault jury trials. With the assistance of undergraduate research assistant and McNair Scholar, Amber Powell (CRLS 2014), the research team is preparing two articles and a full-length book manuscript for publication. Research topics covered in the article manuscripts in preparation include children's testimony on the stand, and the use of text messaging in the courtroom. The book-length study will examine the complex cultural forces at work in sexual assault prosecution, including the use of forensic, professional and social science expertise in the court system.


(September 2013)

Using existing mLearn data as a pilot study, Dr. Heather Hlavka (Criminology and Law Studies) and Dr. Sameena Mulla (Anthropology) successfully submitted a funding proposal for a two-year project based on court observation. The Law and Social Science Program of the National Science Foundation awarded over $100,000 to support, "Trace, Body and Voice: Sexual Assault and Forensic Evidence in the Milwaukee Court Sytem." Thus far, this has translated into full-time observation of sexual assault adjudications in the court system since May of 2013. As of August, the court system has added a fourth felony sexual assault and homicide court to the rotation. Dr. Hlavka and Dr. Mulla have observed court proceedings with the assistance of several undergraduate research assistants who will continue to work with them for the duration of the grant. The study focuses on the use of expertise within sexual assault adjudication, and the research team expects to publish findings in the form of a book at the study's end.


(September 2012)

Since September 2010, students in a total of three different major programs, including criminology and law studies, social welfare and justice, and anthropology, and six different classes have observed court cases in the Milwaukee County Courthouses. Students have observed over 1000 civil injunction hearings and about 45 felony sexual assault and domestic violence trials. The courses that have participated include Methods in Criminological Research, Sex Offenses and Offenders, Victims Services and Policies, Evidence, Domestic Violence in the United States, and Culture, Law and Violence.

Individual students have initiated research projects or taken on research assistantships to focus more deeply on research in the courtroom, and have expanded on specific trends and research topics in the court setting. As data from the project reaches a critical point, faculty and students will collaborate to begin analysis that can be shared with the Milwaukee community, as well as in the scholarly world. Dr. Heather Hlavka and Dr. Meghan Stroshine, in criminology and law studies, and Dr. Sameena Mulla, in anthropology, are among the faculty with active research projects that incorporate mLearn observations.


(January 2011)

This semester, students in two new classes will incorporate court monitoring into their curriculum. Students in two criminology classes, CRLS 4620 Victims Services and Policies, and CRLS 4600 Evidence, will spend time at observing court. The Evidence course, under the observation of Olga Semukhina, will observe felony trials in order to have a hands on experience with the nature of real criminal evidence at the trial stage. A front seat at court will demonstrate the gulf between the way we imagine court and the actual on-the-ground realities of criminal prosecution.

Students in Deborah Crane's Victims Services and Policies course will observe domestic violence injunction proceedings with a very different goal in mind. For them, having practical experience with the challenges and realities of domestic and family violence from the victim's perspective will form the center of their focus. How is the process of seeking a restraining order reflective of public policies about domestic violence? What concerns to victims bring with them to court? How easy or difficult is it to access services and support in the court system?

This semester's cohort of mLearners is about 49 strong, and the observations they produce will be added to the existing, and quickly growing, database of what students in the previous semester collected. By August 2011, there will be anywhere from 300-700 records to analyze.



(December 2010)

After three months of observing sexual assault trials in Milwaukee's felony courts, students had a lot to say:

"I think I have learned that court is not always fair, and that there are many issues that should be improved on in the courtroom. I think the biggest issues I found with the court were the justification of the defendant’s behavior and the blaming of the victim and her/his actions. I also think that the courts should spend more time thinking about consent, and when it is or is not appropriate to involve it in the courtroom. I also learned that sexual assault is prevalent in the court system and its severity tends to be overlooked by society.”

“This experiences has changed me because it has challenged the stereotypes I had about sexual assault…It has also changed me because I now realize that I have a part in the criminal justice system and can perhaps improve [the] system.”

“The experience was one I wouldn’t and couldn’t trade for anything else. Seeing, in court, the theories and application of policies played out in real life scenarios and learning more about the criminal justice system made this something that helped me understand classroom material better and apply it to other knowledge areas. I thought court was a place where objectified justice took place; a fine tuned machine. After this semester, I know that although court has its moments, it is an institution that struggles for congruency and consistency.”

“There were many times that I was the only other person in the courtroom which means that there is often no one there to hold these court officials responsible besides themselves. There are few other areas of society where people are allowed to police themselves especially none as important as the criminal justice system. As someone who was new to the court system, I believe that I was able to make observations that many court officials may overlook because they have been in the system for so long.”

“One thing that my analysis of the courts has shown me is the true importance of community involvement and civic responsibility in improving our justice system and keeping our community safe.”

“Having a community presence in the court process is a powerful tool. I think it makes victims often feel cared for and supported, and makes judges more thoughtful and conscious of the community’s involvement in issues of justice.”

“If someone sees an injustice in a courtroom, they need to talk about it. Either tell someone who can fix the problem or just pass it on and make others aware. We all need to be active in our communities, not just bystanders.”

“It is important for people to stay involved with the community and participating in mLearn or a similar court watch program is a great opportunity to become more aware of our justice system. Actively engaging in court sends the message that the public does care about what occurs in the courtroom and that we will continue to have a watchful eye on the justice system. Monitoring courtrooms may change the courtroom practices in the short-term but substantial efforts must be made on a regular basis to affect outcomes. Though I do not have plans to pursue a criminal justice career, simply being aware of what is going on it the community in regards to justice is an important concept. The justice system affects everyone even if you are not directly involved with it.”


MLEARN Monitors Head to Court

(September 2010)

Over 50 undergraduate students have a front seat to how Milwaukee's Court System works this Fall 2010 semester. Students from the Criminology and Law Studies major are currently attending court proceedings six hours every month and returning to the classroom with data on what has transpired there. The students of Sex Offenses and Offenders attend sexual assault jury trials, pre-trial motions, and sentencing hearings, where they observe the types of evidence introduced, the experts brought to court, the inclusion of different trial participants, the strategies and comportment of legal representatives, and the participation of various institutional stakeholders (for example, sheriff's department, judges, court interpreters, and victim's advocates).

In Methods in Criminological Research, students carry out observations in Milwaukee's Injunction Courtroom. Here, they observe a civil proceeding that addresses violence between intimates, neighbors or family members. Students collect both quantitative and qualitative data on injunction hearings, taking note of about 50 different variables on their monitoring forms. Their class project will be an analysis of the data they have collected. With the heavy caseload of the injunction court, students will have gathered data from over 1,000 cases by the end of the semester.

Students can elect to work in pairs in order to verify each other's data and produce more detailed accounts of the proceedings they are observing. In cases where two MLEARNERs are assigned to a proceeding, additional monitors are assigned to observe domestic violence criminal trials. As with the sexual assault monitoring, students attend jury trials, pre-trial motions, and sentencing hearings.

Court monitoring serves as an opportunity for students to experience first hand what they can only theoretically grasp in a classroom. By making students part of the research process, they also have a hands-on experience with producing socially relevant research from start to finish. In upcoming semesters, students from other courses in Social and Cultural Sciences will join their peers in having an mLearn experience.



Milwaukee County Courthouse


The Marquette Legal Education and Research Network (MLEARN) conducts research on the Milwaukee County Court System as an academic project of the Department of Social and Cultural Sciences at Marquette University.