Classes make law clear to citizens Prosecutors explain intricacies at seminar

March 21, 1997|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

At a time when most of America gets its legal training from O.J. Simpson trial analysts and reruns of "L.A. Law," Frank Derby decided he wanted a taste of the real thing.

So one recent night, Derby, an engineer by day, was among about 18 people sitting in room at Ellicott City's Roger Carter Recreation Center -- his eyes trained on an easel -- as Howard County prosecutors explained the ins and outs of criminal law.

Howard County State's Attorney Marna McLendon says that the now-completed seminar -- held by her office once a week for eight weeks -- was an effort to involve the community in local criminal justice issues, allowing them to better understand the legal system.

The classes were held this winter for the first time, beginning in January. McLendon said no other prosecutor's office in Maryland runs a similar program.

Legal experts and law enforcement officials say such classes also serve to improve the public perception of the legal system, which has come under increasing criticism in recent years.

On one night of the seminar, Assistant State's Attorney Sang Oh set out to explain the different types of evidence allowed, or not allowed, in a criminal trial.

"The best part -- hearsay!" Oh told the class, which included engineers, college students, retirees and school teachers.

The several school teachers in the class said they attended to bone up on the law so they can answer the continual queries from their students -- who have spent a lot of time in the televised courtroom of O.J. Simpson

Students' questions

"They have 8,000 questions," said Wren Cronan, a 10th-grade teacher at Centennial High School. "They also want to know about being searched. They want to know what they can do if a policeman does something wrong. That's a big issue."

Cronan noted that part of the county's high school social studies curriculum includes a section on criminal law. The class helps the teachers -- in essence -- teach.

"It's great because it keeps us on our toes," said Richard Asendorf, a Howard High School teacher.

High school students aren't the only ones still feeling the effect of the Simpson criminal and civil trials.

When Assistant State's Attorney Joeday Newsom explained how footprints are gathered as evidence, a woman raised her hand to ask about the shoe prints found in a pool of blood outside Nicole Brown Simpson's house.

"Believe it or not, I did not follow O.J.," Newsom responded with a chuckle. It was like "going home and listening to work all over again."

But McLendon recognizes that was not the case for most viewers. "I think people for the first time ever, saw close up how a serious trial gets litigated and had lots of questions," she said.

That trial -- which made such technical legal terms as "an excited utterance" fodder for water-cooler conversations across the country -- also caused many to question legal and law enforcement institutions.

That criticism burst the bubble of near-infallibility that previously surrounded the judiciary and opened its issues up for public discussion, says Byron Warnken, a University of Maryland law professor.

Human faults

"The last group to be shown for its human faults is the judiciary," Warnken said, pointing out that one reason for such educational programs is to help the public image of these institutions.

"I think those of us that need to have the public confidence are always availed by education," he said. "A lot of this is education out of self-preservation."

McLendon said she hopes the classes will allow people to put what they see in the media in context and have a better understanding of trial work.

In Portland, Ore., police set up a program for citizens after police relations with the public soured about three years ago. Police initiated the program so people would know "why we do the things we do," said Sgt. John P. Smith of the Portland Police Department.

As part of the program, "students" -- generally community leaders -- acted out a scenario in which they were police officers confronted with an armed criminal.

They would shoot

The majority shot at the person, Smith said. But they were commiting an act that can be decried in local communities -- or even stir riots.

After the class, people said, " 'Now I understand what officers do on a daily basis,' " Smith said.

McLendon's program, modeled partly on the Portland police class, included two-hour classes covering topics from juvenile crime to the nitty-gritty of trial work to constitutional law.

She said she hopes to do another class next year. "I think because of [the program the participants] felt a part of things," McLendon said.

Or as Derby put it: "It's better to learn why things are done than sit back and criticize."

Pub Date: 3/21/97

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