Mock event provides glimpse of a fair trial

Lawyers' program at fairgrounds focuses on sexual harassment

August 30, 1999|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

The Inverter twirled a batch of screaming thrill-seekers six stories above the Maryland State Fair midway. The 4-H kids paraded their prize calves in the Cow Palace. The cooks at Little Richard's sausages stand grilled a mound of onions and peppers, releasing a sweet, mouth-watering steam.

And, in the midst of all this, court was in session.

It was the case of Rowe vs. Pacific Quad Inc., a legal tussle rife with accusations of sexual harassment. It was a mock trial and the latest installment of "Trial By Jury: The Lawyers' Craft," the Maryland State Bar Association's nod to edu-tainment.

Part live-time courtroom drama, part civics lesson, the program is designed to show that in the real world, trials aren't much like what's seen on the "Judge Judy" show. And, after a two-year hiatus, it's back as a fairgrounds sideshow.

Think of it as Oliver Wendell Holmes meets P. T. Barnum.

As the mock trial got under way last night in Timonium, the fair was going strong, and a couple of ski jumpers took practice runs on a nearby artificial slope. No matter. About 80 spectators refused to be distracted from the legal maneuvering on the stage. These spectators would serve as the jury -- rendering judgment on two-legged animals, instead of the four-legged kind judged at the fair.

The jurors enjoyed a dress code not often seen in the hallowed halls of justice, wearing T-shirts and shorts, sunglasses and sandals.

Fictional plaintiff Alice Rowe testified that she'd been forced to quit her job at a small computer company because she'd been sexually harassed. She said her supervisor had made life impossible with his leering and dirty jokes. She said she was offended by his suggestive remarks.

"He would look up and down and admire certain parts of my body," said attorney Elise D. Morris, playing the part of Rowe. "I was trying to focus on my job, and he was just trying to incite me."

Attorney Mark Kozlowski played the boss, Stanley Schmit. His character received a few boos when introduced, but as the trial wore on, the "jurors" seemed to accept his argument that the woman had read too much into his remarks.

"She's wrong," said Michael Hedrick, a landscaper from Fairfax, Va. He made a beer run and sat back and enjoyed the show.

For the most part, Anne Arundel Circuit Judge James C. Cawood Jr. played the straight man, but moderator Dick Gelfman of WJZ-TV and lawyers Harry S. Johnson and Alvin I. Frederick hammed it up.

"Most lawyers are frustrated thespians anyway," said Johnson, a civil litigator from Whiteford, Taylor and Preston, who represented Rowe in the mock trial. "This gives us a chance to have fun without costing our clients money."

Which he did. During his opening statement, he said his adversary, Frederick, was smart -- "despite what he looks like."

Frederick, a litigator with the Baltimore firm of Eccleston and Wolf, said, "This is a great chance to try things out that you'd never do in a courtroom, unless you're absolutely sure it would work. We'll probably take a couple of shots at each other."

Still, he said the program served a serious purpose in illuminating some of the subtle legal issues surrounding sexual harassment.

"We're going to play it, in parts, for laughs, but it's a serious thing," he said. "How do you act in a workplace?"

The program gave the bar association a chance to bolster the legal system's flagging credibility, said Janet S. Eveleth, communications director for the state bar association.

"We're trying to reinstall that trust and confidence," she said.

The program began in 1988, and for years was conducted under a tent near the midway. Eveleth said the fair seemed a good place for the event, because it draws large numbers of people.

As the case unfolded, almost everyone in the audience stayed, no more willing to leave than they would be to walk out before the climactic scenes of a Hollywood courtroom drama.

In the end, they delivered their verdict -- voting overwhelmingly in favor of Schmit, the defendant.

Additional performances of "Trial by Jury" are scheduled for 6: 30 p.m. Sunday and 5: 30 p.m. Sept. 6.

Pub Date: 8/30/99

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