Learning on the docket Justice: Fifth-graders get a good look at the judicial system as they sit in on a session of Circuit Court in Baltimore County.

June 05, 1996|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore County judge yesterday turned his chambers and courtroom into a learning laboratory for two classes of fifth-graders -- and several adults who became students for a day.

About 40 pupils from Immaculate Conception School in Towson spent much of the day with Circuit Judge John O. Hennegan in the culmination of a series of in-school lessons on law enforcement.

The pupils -- boys in white button-down shirts and blue chinos and girls in blue plaid jumpers over white blouses -- gathered in Courtroom 12 of the county courthouse in Towson as Judge Hennegan heard the day's docket. Some sat in the jury box; others, including the judge's son Brendan, 10, sat on the wooden benches.

Ordinarily a mix of bail reduction requests, arraignments and other procedural matters, the docket presented Judge Hennegan with opportunities to extract lessons for the children.

When a 31-year-old defendant charged with theft said he stole to support his heroin and cocaine habit, the judge asked, "Think about what drugs have done for you; can you think of anything good?"

The man replied sullenly: "No, your honor."

Another defendant was a 16-year-old facing armed robbery and handgun charges that called for $250,000 bail; yet another was charged with stealing from a friend.

The students watched closely as the judge denied bail reductions, asked questions to determine whether defendants were threats to public safety, and explained trial rights to several defendants who came in without attorneys.

Marveling at how quiet and attentive the students were, Assistant Public Defender Sally Chester said, "Gosh, how come they're so good?"

An observer jokingly responded, "They don't want to be found in contempt."

Some students occasionally looked agitated and confused. But when asked if he was getting bored, Sam Cabrera, 11, said, "No, this is exciting. It's neat to find out what the judicial system does all day."

Patricia O'Hara, the mother of 11-year-old Danny, said the day's lesson offered "an awakening" as students observed women working as prosecutors, and saw defendants forced to take short steps because their ankles were shackled.

Perhaps the most inquisitive observer was Mary Ellen Brennan, a fifth-grade teacher and the school's vice principal. She took notes and eagerly sought the meaning of such terms as arraignment, shackles and home detention.

Chris Lynch, 11, watched from the front row. He said he wants to become a sheriff's deputy assigned to escort defendants from the lockup to the courtroom.

But Katie Ryan didn't think a law enforcement career was for her -- at least not the kind Judge Hennegan has. She said, "I'm too soft to be a judge."

Pub Date: 6/05/96

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