Student drama unfolds in court High school teams of 'lawyers' compete in mock trials

March 30, 1997|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

Theresa Lightly is a 17-year-old cheerleader and honor student. She is pregnant and she drinks. Her parents and the father of her unborn baby are asking a judge to commit her to an alcohol-treatment center.

This tough case is being tried over and over again this spring in courtrooms throughout Maryland, with a different decision each time.

The fictional Theresa and her struggle are this year's model for the annual Mock Trial Competition, sponsored by the Maryland Department of Education. Members of the Maryland Bar Association are volunteer advisers to each team and judges in the courtroom.

High schools around the state are thick in district and regional competitions this month and next.

In Carroll County, only South Carroll and North Carroll high schools have teams, and they compete against each other and Howard County high schools in the first tier of competition.

In May or June, the team that wins the state championship will face the New York state winner. New York and Maryland are the two states with the Theresa Lightly case.

And it's a juicy case, with a girl struggling for her civil rights and a boy trying to assert his parental rights. Theresa's father (or mother, if a team has a female playing the role of parent) says the girl in denial about her drinking problem. Theresa says they don't understand or support her.

"But Miss Lightly," asks South Carroll senior Allan Stevens, playing a lawyer for the father at a recent mock trial of the case, "isn't it true that when your father and mother attempted to support you and talk to you, you ran to your room and slammed the door?"

Preparing for a mock trial requires students to research cases, poring over law books, state codes and legal precedents. A real lawyer volunteers to guide students after school. Students are handed the bare facts of the case, and depositions are given by the witnesses.

"It's trying to develop an argument, with the information that you have," Stevens said.

The South Carroll team was at a disadvantage -- its lawyer-adviser was unable to attend all but one of its after-school meetings, said teacher John Elsen. But that didn't stop team members from winning their case against the defense team from Glenelg High School in Howard County.

Jerry F. Barnes, Carroll County's state's attorney, volunteered to be the judge in this trial, heard in Carroll County District Court. He found for the South Carroll plaintiffs, saying they met the criteria necessary to commit Theresa to an alcoholism-treatment center because of the urgent need to protect the fetus.

But when the points for individual performance were added up, Glenelg beat South Carroll by one point.

Other volunteer judges have found in favor of the defense, so the teams never know which way the decision will go. Following the protocol for mock trials, Barnes judged each lawyer and witness on presentation, believability, arguments and other factors.

"The outcome of the case has nothing to do with the points," noted Paul Saxton, a South Carroll sophomore. He played Theresa's father this year, but he hopes to have a lawyer role next year. He wants to be a lawyer some day.

Barnes commended the lawyers for their direct-examination styles, and liked the performance of the witnesses.

But to all of them, after he announced his decision, he gave the same advice: Speak louder -- much louder.

"You have to think about keeping your voice up," Barnes said, adding some tips about how to cross-examine, when not to bother cross-examining and how to ask leading questions that get a quick yes or no answer.

Aside from the fun students have playing lawyers and witnesses, mock trials are an excellent teaching tool, said Susan Tabatsko, a social studies teacher at North Carroll who has sponsored the mock trial team there for 13 years.

"Many years ago, I heard a speaker who told us the single activity most suited to the gifted and talented student was mock trials," said Tabatsko. "You have to be able to express yourself eloquently, right on the spot; think of alternatives; be calm and self-possessed; and think through complicated concepts."

All those things are what teachers try to elicit from their brightest students, she said.

"And I have had students who were otherwise not particularly intellectually gifted, but who were very effective at mock trials," Tabatsko said.

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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