Rock Springs Massacre Topic of UW Mock Trial April 15

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An illustration of the 1885 Chinese Massacre appearing in Harper's Magazine. Illustration courtesy of the Rock Springs Historical Museum.

LARAMIE — University of Wyoming law students and practicing attorneys will stage a mock trial using the facts from the Rock Springs Massacre of 1885 — when nearly 30 Chinese workers were killed by local miners.

The trial will take place on Monday, April 15, in the UW College of Law. The fifth annual Spence Law Firm Historic Trial will take place at 6 p.m. in the College of Law’s large moot courtroom, Room 178. The event is free and open to the public.

Before the mock trial begins, Wyoming PBS will present a half-hour documentary about the Rock Springs Massacre at 6 p.m. The mock trial begins at 6:30 p.m. and will end at about 9:30 p.m. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. Refreshments will be provided during the trial’s intermission.

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The College of Law, with collaboration from the Spence Law Firm, created the annual historical trial as a fun and interesting way to learn about important historical events through a legal lens, while also providing UW law students a way to simulate a trial of a high-profile case, says UW law Professor Steve Easton, the faculty director of the trial. The program features a fictional mock trial that is created from the facts of a chronicled historical event.

The Massacre

The Rock Springs Massacre was the result of the perceived threat of Chinese immigrant coal miners taking jobs away from white workers. Because the Chinese workers were willing to work for lower wages, the Union Pacific hired the Chinese workers to reduce labor costs and lessen the impact of the strikes that had become frequent at Union Pacific-owned coal mines. The uprising and violence that ensued was the culmination of labor and racial tensions.

In the fictional mock trial, Ming Lee, the widow of the Chinese owner of a laundry who was killed in the riot, brings a “wrongful death” action suit. She asserts that the Union Pacific’s labor actions caused the riot that killed her husband. Union Pacific officials assert that others — including rioting miners, not the company — are legally responsible for the death of Lee.

The trial file for the event was written by second-year law student Katelyn Krabbenhoft, from Fargo, N.D., and third-year law student John Fritz, of Streetman, Texas. He also will serve as an attorney for the plaintiffs, along with Mel Orchard, of the Spence Law Firm of Jackson. Representing the defense will be third-year law student Ryan Felde-Vassallo, of Cheyenne, and George Powers, of the Cheyenne law firm Sundahl, Powers, Kapp and Martin LLC.

Earlier, the historic trial, for the first time, branched outside of Laramie. In March, the same trial was staged at Western Wyoming Community College (WWCC).

Learning About Law, and history

Holding the trial twice with entirely different legal teams, casts and juries means that, while the facts of the case are the same, the outcome of the trial could potentially be vastly different, Easton adds.

The results from the Rock Springs version of the trial will be revealed at the conclusion of the Laramie event for comparison and discussion.

The cast will be in full costumes and will try to be as historically accurate as possible. The trial itself will use modern legal rules, procedures and technology, but the underlying evidence and facts will be historically accurate, Easton says.

For more information, email Christine Reed, UW College of Law communications director, at christine.reed@uwyo.edu.