Thurston’s jury is out: John White guilty as charged

Story and photos by MAGGI HENRIKSON

It was a mystery that Thurston Middle School’s Forensic Crime Team investigated since discovering the gruesome “murders” of three people in Dana Point Harbor last March. Er, make that Roanoke Island, and the year was 1585. 

The student-driven scenario was built around a historical fiction scripted by the students. They played out the parts of the murder mystery and subsequent investigation, all supported by advanced, modern era forensic technology. The year-long project came to its conclusion last Friday during the courtroom trial “Roanoke: Murder in the Lost Colony.”

Thurstons jury Martinez

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Thurston teacher, Michelle Martinez, stands before the defense – Defense Attorney Cassidy Morgan (left) and her lineup of witnesses 

The Forensic Team club was started by social studies teacher, Michelle Martinez, and is open for all 6 - 8th graders. For the past three years, Cox Communications has provided support for the program, through their Innovation in Education grant. Martinez designed the program to teach students how to analyze and apply critical thinking to real-life problem solving.

Who’s the bad guy?

Sir Walter Raleigh had been charged with establishing a colony in the New World, by her majesty Queen Elizabeth I. He provided the colonists with one year’s worth of essential supplies, while he returned to England. After three years he returned to find the entire colony of 115 people had disappeared. In the Crime Team’s scenario, John White was travelling with Sir Walter Raleigh, and he was devastated on his return to find his entire family was gone along with the colonists. He blamed Raleigh for their demise.

Thurstons jury Mustache

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Prosecution Attorney Keegan Thomas points out just how unfortunate it is that Gilbert looked so much like Raleigh! 

The team “prosecutor” presented evidence that John White had murdered the victim, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Raleigh’s brother, aboard their ship in a case of mistaken identity. They did have eerily similar mustaches! 

Evidence and discovery

Medical Examiner, Gabby Finkelstein, presented the biological report on the three bodies found: Below deck, it was determined that Paul Martin had been suffocated by a pillow – he was purple around the eyes and had small feathers in his mouth and lungs; the dead man found beneath the water was the ship’s night watchman, Victor Smithfield, who had drowned, with evidence of blunt force trauma to the head; Sir Humphrey Gilbert had been stabbed twice in the back and once in the neck. 

Finkelstein concluded, “All were killed differently but in the same time frame.”

There were several witnesses. The Spanish “Captain” Joaquin Andres was ashore and saw some shadows on the deck of the Royal Ark. Captain Andres’ testimony, in Spanish, was niftily translated by Interpreter Austin Plank in the courtroom. 

The French “Captain”, interpreted by Margaux Huot-Marchand, saw a Native American on the deck, maybe Manteo, the Croatan tribal leader, whose tomahawk was found at the scene. Manteo was presented to the court, played by Quinn Butler, and stated that he was a tracker who had come to the ship to report that they’d found no clues as to the disappearance of the colonists – but then he discovered the dead man. “My tomahawk was dropped when I was alarmed,” he said.

Thurstons jury Jury

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To aid the jury in its decision, part of the modern day evidence was presented via virtual reality headsets showing video of the forensic analysis done by the team 

The jury shall decide

After DNA and ballistics evidence pointed toward John White, the Defense Attorney, played by Cassidy Morgan, had a tough time. She protested, saying there were just too many other fingerprints to prove his guilt. Besides, he is a Quaker, a man of God and doesn’t believe in killing. 

The Prosecution Attorney, played by eighth-grader Keegan Thomas, ultimately brought forth enough damning evidence and posited reasons that the jury sided with – John White killed the two guards quietly because they had witnessed his brutal murder of Sir Humphrey Gilbert. Gilbert had been savagely killed, shot and stabbed, to inflict the most pain, in an act of revenge for the loss of his family. 

The jury convened and talked it out before the audience in Thurston’s Black Box theatre. Whodunnit? They concluded John White done it – guilty by reason of insanity. He was sentenced to exile from the colony.