State fair exhibit is trial under a big top Court: At the Maryland State Fair, "Trial by Jury" educates the public on the workings of the legal system as well as providing a bit of entertainment.

August 30, 1996|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,SUN STAFF

It's far from your ordinary courtroom.

For starters, it has no roof. Judges, lawyers and litigants gather under a large tent, a la Ringling Bros.

Its location is improbable, on the fringes of the bustling state fair grounds in Timonium. During a trial, testimony might be interrupted by a carnival barker or drowned out by a bellowing cow.

Then there are the jurors. They wear ball caps and sunglasses if they like. They wander in and out as they please. They operate under the most liberal dress policy of any court in America.

Welcome to "Trial by Jury," one of the most ambitious, yet curious attractions at the Maryland State Fair.

Spending an hour at the tent probably won't arm you with enough legal knowledge to make partner at a downtown law firm. But for some, it might help to de-mystify the court system.

"It's a fact that 90 percent of people have never been in a courtroom, other than district court for a traffic ticket," says Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge John F. Fader II. "What they know of the system is from novels, TV or a movie.

"What we do is bring them closer to the reality," says Fader, who volunteers his time as a judge at the mock trials.

Sponsored by the Maryland State Bar Association, "Trial by Jury" seeks to educate fair goers to the workings of the legal system as it entertains them. At 6: 30 p.m., lawyers and judges present a trial, lasting an hour to 90 minutes. On weekends, there's also a trial at 1: 30 p.m.

Lawyers and judges from across the state volunteer their time. They take on fictitious cases, prepare witnesses and craft opening and closing arguments. A moderator sits in on the proceedings, breaking in to explain points of law and to take questions.

At the end of the trials, the judges and trial lawyers turn to the audience. By a show of hands, the fair visitors hand down a

verdict.

"It's a trial in the sense that rules of evidence are followed, and judges make the appropriate rulings," says Mike Budow, a trial lawyer from Bethesda and "Trial by Jury" volunteer. "But it's also a lot of fun. You see lawyers taking liberties they'd never take [in a real trial]. It's one thing to be thrown out of a courtroom, another to be thrown out of a tent."

Since its debut at the state fair about eight years ago, "Trial by Jury" has become one of the state bar's most successful education programs. Along the way, it also has attracted as volunteers some of the state's leading trial lawyers and jurists. Judges from most circuits across the state have participated, as has a judge from the state's highest appellate court, the Court of Appeals.

Trial lawyers who have participated over the years include some of the area's best known litigators, including Paul Bekman and Paul Mark Sandler.

"We don't have a lot of people turn us down," says Towson lawyer Keith Truffer, who organized this year's event. "Judges and lawyers are genuinely enthusiastic about being involved."

For their part, attorneys and judges say they believe the program informs the public. And, they say, it helps to repair the sagging image of the legal profession.

"The public is deluged on a daily basis with the TV version of trials, the John Grisham version of being a lawyer," says Tom Morrow, a Towson lawyer who is serving as a "Trial by Jury"

moderator this year. "With few exceptions, that's miles from reality."

"I know it sounds corny," says Budow, the lawyer from Bethesda. "But all you hear about in the media are the lawyers in trouble. Nobody ever says, 'Hey, I had a competent lawyer. He or she really knew what they were doing.' "

For the most part, the cases are treated as seriously as those tried in courthouses across the state.

"We're told every year they expect us to be serious, to treat cases pretty much as they would in the actual system," says Fader.

But given the setting, it's not always possible. Or a good idea.

Some years, Budow says, the biggest challenge to the lawyers is being heard over the din of fair noises.

"The decorum isn't ideal," he says with a laugh. "One year, they had us near the cows. They were having a rough night, and let us know it."

The mock trials even can cause usually stern judges to make allowances. Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Barbara Kerr Howe, the current state bar president, acknowledges she bends the rules a bit during her visits to "Trial by Jury."

"If people are chewing gum, I don't make them spit it out," Judge Howe says. "In my courtroom, I sure do."

Pub Date: 8/30/96

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