High school students to get a day in court

Experience: Four teams are learning about the law as they compete in the finals of the Statewide High School Mock Trial Competition.

April 25, 2003|By Stephanie Choy | Stephanie Choy,SUN STAFF

A case will be heard today in an Anne Arundel courthouse involving the wrongful death of a minor whose drink was spiked with Ecstasy at a party. Except the victim never died.

Wendell vs. Vaccio, a trial featuring a student who put Ecstasy in a friend's drink at a party, is a case study being used this week in the finals of the Statewide High School Mock Trial Competition.

The competition started in January with 1,800 students from 126 schools. This week, it was down to the final four: Mount Hebron High School in Howard County, Frederick High School in Frederick County, Elizabeth Seton High School in Prince George's County and Bishop Walsh High School in Allegheny County. Twenty-six thousand students from all counties in Maryland have participated in the competition since it began in 1983.

In the competition, teams conduct a mock trial and use notebooks stuffed with "facts" provided by the Maryland State Bar Association and the Citizen Law-Related Education Program, which manage the competition. Past courtroom confrontations have included illness because of chemical dumping and injury linked to the videotaping of a stunt for a Jackass-esque reality television show.

The teams received their casebooks for the competition in November and spent weeks analyzing, memorizing and learning the case from top to bottom with the assistance of a volunteer attorney and teacher coach. After preparing for both defense and prosecution, teams draw straws to determine which side they would represent. The winner is chosen by a volunteer judge.

Brent LaRosa, teacher coach for the Mount Hebron High School team, said his students have been preparing since the beginning of the school year. Twenty or 30 auditioned for 12 "starter" positions on the mock trial team, consisting of three lawyers and three witnesses for each side of the case.

Members of the team were chosen on the basis of their grasp of courtroom procedure, public speaking skills, experience and ability to react under pressure. Some are interested in going on to careers in law. "[Mock trial] is a good springboard for that," said LaRosa. "They get to try a real trial in front of a judge. It's great hands-on law experience."

Bobbie Mazzafro, captain of the mock trial team and a cheerleader at Mount Hebron, became interested after learning about the program from friends in New York. Her first mock trial, in which she took part as an eighth-grader at Mount View Middle School, was written by the head of the mock trial team at Mount Hebron in an attempt to pique interest. His recruiting efforts worked because Mazzafro, a junior, joined the mock trial team as a freshman at Mount Hebron the next year.

"I like doing it because it's theatrical, and I like acting and speaking in front of people," she said. "I'm thinking of going into a law career."

In the past, Mount Hebron has had respectable finishes, second place, in the county. Mount Hebron competed with teams at Glenelg High School, Centennial High School and Hammond High School. This year is the first time since Mazzafro joined the team that any school in the county has beaten Glenelg, the county champion.

Although the trials seem straight out of television, turnout at the mock trials is low. "Sometimes people come out to watch these," said LaRosa. "We get friends and family of people who are participating, maybe teachers andprincipals. It's not a spectator sport."

The finals will be held at 10 a.m. today at the Court of Appeals Building, 361 Rowe Blvd., Annapolis. Judge Glenn T. Harrell will preside. Seating is limited and on a first-come, first-served basis.

Information: Citizenship Law-Related Educational Program, 410-706-5360.

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