Three Richmond law students observed an unfortunate chapter in Virginia history last month when a federal judge sentenced former First Lady Maureen McDonnell to prison on corruption charges.

For second-year law students Amy Braun, Liz Tyler and Chris Keegan, who attended the sentencing hearing at the U.S. District Court courthouse in downtown Richmond, the experience was both emotional and enlightening.

For Keegan, who had witnessed sentencing hearings, the procedure for McDonnell was more detailed and complex than he’d seen before.

“After taking the evidence class and learning that the rules [of evidence] don’t apply to sentencing it was interesting to see the role of witness testimony and the types of evidence that is put out there,” Keegan said.

Tyler said the witness testimony provided a more detailed picture of Maureen McDonnell as a mother and a woman struggling with her marriage to the former governor.

“You’re basically opening up someone’s entire life,” Tyler said.

Tyler, Braun and Keegan are all John Marshall Scholars and attended the sentencing as part of the scholarship program. Before the hearing, Richmond Law professor John Douglass, a former prosecutor, spoke to the John Marshall Scholars and provided a brief summary of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, as well as sentences handed down to public officials in other high-profile corruption cases.

Tyler and Braun agreed that U.S. District Court Judge James R. Spencer provided thorough explanations for his sentencing decision and seemed to sympathize with the family without abandoning his duty to enforce the law.

“He didn’t just come out and say ’12 months and a day,’” Braun said. “He gave so many reasons for what went into his decision.”

During Bob McDonnell’s sentencing in January, Judge Spencer discussed his respect for the military, and Braun said she noticed Maureen’s defense team playing up the military connections her life.

“Every other word seemed to be about the military,” Braun said. “She did this or that for the military, she was a military daughter, a military wife, a military mother and they harped on it so much. It seemed like overkill, but it showed how important the individual judge was.”

Braun said each witness the McDonnell’s called had a specific role, from explaining Maureen’s upbringing to her family struggles to her intentions to do community service to make up for her wrongdoing.

All three students said the proceedings brought out strong emotions.

“I felt like I was changing as I was sitting there because part of it I was looking at from a very analytical point-of-view,” Keegan said, “and then all of a sudden somebody would say something that struck me as ‘This is real, this is a real person with a real life and a real family and this sentencing is going to have a profound effect on them.”

Moving forward, the students said they would remember the tactics used at the sentencing as well as the historic nature of the moment.

“It’s nice to be sitting in that room and not talking about what happened 100 or 200 years ago but what’s happening in legal history right now,” Tyler said. “I was glad for us that the [John Marshall] program responded to that interest.”

“It’s just something that hardly ever happens and I don’t think it’s ever happened in Virginia,” Keegan said. “Just to look back and say ‘I was a witness to some of this,’ is kind of neat.”