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(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)

Inmates in orange jumpsuits. A judge in a black robe. A jury of 12. The state attorney facing off against the defense. The only things missing were detectives Benson and Elliot in the audience. In Judge Ruiz’s courtroom, I felt like I was on the set of one of my all-time favorite dramas, Law and Order.

On Wednesday, our cohort was lucky enough to observe Duke alum Judge Rodolfo Ruiz in his courtroom, and our timing couldn’t have been more perfect- we were able to sit in on the opening arguments of a murder trial. Judge Ruiz even invited us into his chambers and ordered pizza for lunch as we discussed the trial’s details and potential outcomes.

I was immediately intrigued by the case because its outcome wasn’t clear-cut. The defendant claimed self-defense after murdering a co-worker with a kitchen knife on the job. There were witnesses, and the murder was even caught on security footage (which Judge Ruiz was able to show us in his chambers after the opening arguments). Within the span of an hour I changed my mind multiple times on what I thought the outcome of the trial should be. Getting to go “behind the scenes” so to speak definitely gave me a more nuanced perspective on the intricacies of the US judicial system. It made me realize just how important clear language is– for example, if the word “premeditation” is interpreted differently by different people, a defendant’s life could result in drastically different outcomes.

The best part of the day was probably listening to Judge Ruiz talk so passionately about his job. One thing he said really stood out to me: “When you’re playing with your kids on Sunday afternoon and you just can’t wait to get into work Monday morning, that’s when you know you have the perfect job.” Hearing this encouraged me to keep exploring different fields and take advantage of everything Duke has to offer so that one day I will hopefully find a career I love as much as he loves his.

Watching the trial and getting advice from Judge Ruiz was definitely a highlight of my DukeEngage experience, and I eagerly await the jury’s decision, which will likely come out sometime next week.