STEM Edition Sample Lesson: Mathematically Innocent. Still Guilty.

Mathematically Innocent, But Still Guilty: Did Society’s Lack of Basic Math & Science Facts send an Innocent Man to Jail?



Plaintiff Trina Drake got into a car accident with Defendant Barbara Holstead. Trina said her light was green, and Barbara also said her left-turn signal was green. There was no evidence that the traffic light was broken.

One of Barbara’s witnesses, Robert Mills, testified that when Trina was 40 to 50 yards from the intersection, Trina’s traffic light turned yellow. Robert did not notice the color of the traffic light after that, however, so he could not testify to the color of the light when Trina’s car entered the intersection. Robert also testified that Trina was driving at around 40 to 45 miles per hour when her light turned yellow. The stoplight stayed yellow for 3.6 seconds before turning into a red light.

1) Assuming Robert’s testimony was true, did Trina run the red light? (This requires students to convert units, i.e. 1,760 yds = 1 mile and 3600 seconds = 1 hour and determine whether based on Trina ran the red light based on Robert’s testimony of Trina’s speed and distance from the intersection. Students should express their answers as an inequality to reflect the range of values).



During the trial, the following exchange happened (fun to have students act out the 4 roles here):

[Trina’s Attorney]: As you testified, if Trina Drake was going forty miles an hour at the time she passed you, do you know how far she would travel in 3.6 seconds when the light was yellow?

[Robert]: No.

[Trina’s Attorney]: Would it surprise you to learn that in 3.6 seconds—

[Barbara’s Attorney]: I would object—

THE COURT: Objection sustained. That is an improper question, counsel.

[Trina’s Attorney]: Your Honor, at this time, I would ask the court to take judicial notice—

THE COURT: (interrupting) No, sir, counsel. If you are getting ready to tell me to take judicial notice of measurements of time periods in order for a car to travel—is that your? [sic]

[Trina’s Attorney]: Yes, sir.

THE COURT: No, sir. The answer is no. I will not take judicial notice. That takes testimony, counsel.

[Trina’s Attorney]: All right, your Honor.

2) How would you predict Trina’s attorney would have ended his question, “Would it surprise you to learn that in 3.6 seconds…”?”



Courts use a process called “judicial notice” to allow you to enter evidence that is generally known or that could be determined from a reliable source or method.

For example, if you needed to prove that the sun rose at 6:12am, the Court could take judicial notice of a farmer’s almanac. Courts could also take judicial notice of facts that require some math to determine. In more specific terms, judicial notice can be used for “scientific facts and principles that are generally recognized and ought to be known by men of ordinary understanding and intelligence.” Courts take judicial notice of natural forces as well as the primary laws of physics, mechanics, and mathematics. A fact is generally known even though it has to be processed with commonly possessed mental skills.

On the other hand, if the issues involved were too complex, the Court could not take judicial notice. Instead, the Court would need an expert witness to explain.

3) Based on this rule, do you agree with the Court’s decision to not take judicial notice of the mathematical method of determining distance based on speed and time? Why or why not?


The Cuyahoga County Grand Jury indicted Andrew Mendez on four counts of aggravated arson, four counts of felonious assault, and three counts of obstructing justice. The charges resulted from an explosion at Jacobs Field during the ninth inning of an Indians baseball game. Mendez waived his right to a jury trial and a bench trial proceeded.

At the close of the bench trial, the trial court concluded the explosive device originated from the fifth floor at or about the picnic area, where greeter Patrick Vorreiter had observed Andrew Mendez. Vorreiter stated at trial “shortly before the explosion occurred, Mendez stood up near the railing, said that he was going to light a bomb. Vorreiter observed Mendez flicking a cigarette lighter before the explosion.

Several patrons suffered injury from the explosion. These individuals stood in an area near the stadium wall, which existed beneath the fifth floor picnic area, “the patio where Mr. Mendez admits he was located.” The distance measured about 63 ft. (above) the railing where the picnic tables stood and the place where the explosion occurred.

Mendez argued the trial court erred in convicting him for detonating the explosion. (On the video, the explosive device fell 16 feet in the final second before it hit the ground). The Court sentenced Mendez to three years in prison.

On his appeal, Mendez argued the object could not have been dropped from the picnic area. To reach this factual conclusion, Mendez asked the court of appeals to take judicial notice of a formula, which computes the rate of acceleration of falling objects. He also asks us to make the computation using the formula and judicially notice the rate of speed of the falling object based on the height it fell from. (This formula states that velocity is equal to the square root of the quantity of two times the rate of gravity (approximately 32 sq. ft/sec) times the height).

4) Assuming all of the evidence provided was true, was Mr. Mendez mathematically innocent? Why or why not?

5) Mendez’s attorneys asked the Court to take judicial notice of formulas that are found in high school physics books. Given that judicial notice must be given to “scientific facts and principles that are generally recognized and ought to be known by men of ordinary understanding and intelligence,” should the Court have taken judicial notice of this formula? Provide at least 2 reasons for both sides of the argument.

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