DECATUR — Genesis Muex, 14, has considered becoming a lawyer when she gets older, and on Monday, she got to walk a few miles in the shoes of a public defender when she and more than 20 other girls spent the day learning about careers in law at the Macon County Courts Facility.
Participating in a mock closing argument Monday afternoon with the assistance of Macon County First Assistant State’s Attorney Nichole Kroncke and former public defender Michelle Sanders, it was Muex’s job to convince Justice Lisa Holder White that Olivia, a fictitious 16-year-old girl who allegedly stole a Twilight Blu-Ray disc valued at $25 from “S-Mart” on Oct. 4, 2012, was not guilty, and that Jeff, the store’s theft-prevention officer, had it out for her.
Holder White, a former Macon County Circuit Court judge is now a judge on the 4th District Appellate Court in Springfield.
Standing before Holder White and the rest of the girls in Macon County courtroom 6A, Muex argued that Olivia was not guilty because she started crying and offered to pay for the Blu-Ray disc after Jeff stopped her and found it in her possession. She also cited that Olivia, who allegedly received a phone call that her dog had been hit by a car while she was shopping, was simply upset over her dog and didn’t realize she hadn’t paid for the disc prior to leaving the store.
Although Holder White found Olivia guilty, citing her previous retail theft conviction from three years earlier, Muex said she enjoyed the experience.
“I liked this,” she said after she finished her closing argument, noting that the experience made her want to become a lawyer even more. “I like to debate, and I want to help people if they didn’t do anything wrong.”
A mock closing argument was just one exercise the girls, ranging from sixth through 12th grade, participated in as part of a Growing Into Responsible Leaders (GIRLS) program that allowed the girls to see how many options there are for women in the law enforcement field.
Their day also included a tour through the Macon County Jail; an exercise in which they were able to read sworn statements and determine the prison term a defendant might receive; and presentations from Jennifer Harris, a Macon County sheriff’s deputy; Jennifer Netherton, a corrections officer; Amy Smith, a supervisor with the Macon County probation department; Janette Carlton, a Decatur police detective; and Kelly Geisler, a court reporter supervisor with the Macon County Circuit Court.
“I hope this program teaches them to make good choices and also helps them think about different careers and what they might want to do in the future,” Sonja Chargois, a program specialist with Girl Scouts of Central Illinois, said.
Having offered the event once before, Chargois said this year’s turnout was much larger than she expected.
“Forty girls signed up for this, which is way more than I thought we’d have,” she said. “I thought we’d only have 15 girls.”
Harris, who’s been with the sheriff’s office for seven years, was excited to talk to the girls about her job.
“I was the first female officer hired in Mount Zion,” she said, “and when I started at the sheriff’s office, there were two female officers and now there are four, and hopefully there will be more in the future.”
Harris said despite what others may say about female officers not being as strong or as good as male officers, women are well-suited for law enforcement.
“We pay attention to detail and often see things that male officers might not, so we do a particularly good job in the law enforcement field,” she said.
She noted that she couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
“This is a great job,” she said. “It’s fun, and you do something different every day.”
Carlton, who’s been in law enforcement for 19 years, said the number of female detectives is also growing.
“Agencies today are hiring more and more women,” she said. “It’s a very good job and a noble profession.”
Sanders, who is now Holder White’s law clerk, said she believes women make good public defenders as well.
“I think women are able, in defense work, to understand the defendant and their way of thinking,” she said. “There’s a level of empathy there.”
Ryielee Buggar, 11, of Decatur said spending the day with Holder White and listening to the other female presenters was inspiring.
“I want to be a judge, and it was nice to have this experience and learn more about it,” she said. “As a judge, you’re the one who makes decisions and you have different experiences every day, and this made me want to be a judge even more.”
Adrena Chargois, 13, said programs like the one she experienced Monday are important.
“I think this is important for girls because some girls think they could never do jobs like this, but now they know they can,” she said.
“The message I want to send the girls is that whatever career decisions they make, they can accomplish it,” said Holder White. “Whatever they want to do in life, they can do it.”