The We the Jury program teaches high school students about one of their civic duties.

Trial-by-fire court lesson

June 03, 2005|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

By the time the bell rang in Monique Pierre-Philippe's American government class, the students were deep in argument. Did David Diaz know that the backpack his friend had given him contained marijuana?

"You cannot miss a 2-pound bag of marijuana," argued Corryn Freeman, a 10th-grader sitting in the front row. Other students disagreed. Diaz said he had not looked in the bag, and they believed him.

It was the kind of exchange that Mary Murphy was hoping for when she brought the We the Jury program to Wilde Lake High School yesterday.

As part of the program, Murphy, the senior assistant state's attorney for Howard County, walked the students through the jury process, letting them serve as mock lawyers and jurors in a fictitious case involving Diaz.

"It was a great class," Murphy said after the bell rang and the students reluctantly put their arguments aside.

The program, offered by the American Bar Association, is designed to help students understand the importance of serving on a jury, Murphy said. For the past two years, Howard County students have learned about the legal system through panel discussions with judges and lawyers, said Mark Stout, the county's curriculum coordinator for secondary social studies.

This year, he said, the school system opted for a more hands-on approach. "It's kind of a simulation of a real case," Stout said. "And the kids themselves are the real jury."

The program is taught over two days. On the first day, teachers discuss the legal system and then show a film provided by the American Bar Association, which includes actors presenting their cases in the fictional Diaz trial.

On the second day, attorneys visit the classrooms. Students act as lawyers, and they select a jury from their peers. Then members of the student jury hash out details of the case and render a verdict while the rest of the class watches.

Atholton, River Hill, Mount Hebron, Howard, Reservoir and Oakland Mills high schools also participate in the We the Jury program. Attorneys Ellen Koplow and Sang Oh worked with Stout to coordinate the program.

Murphy started the session at Wilde Lake by discussing the qualifications a juror needs - he or she must be at least 18, a United States citizen and a resident of the county where the case is being tried.

One student, Jared Laswell, had a question: Is there a tax write-off for serving on a jury?

Murphy said no, but added that jurors in Howard County are paid $20 a day to serve. She then explained the jury selection process, known as voir dire.

She told students Katrina Farmer, acting as the prosecutor, and Kristoff Francis, the lawyer for the accused, that they could excuse four jurors for no reason and could ask questions of the other students when choosing their jury.

Murphy discussed the kinds of questions that might be asked of a juror: Had they or members of their immediate family been victims of a crime? Had they witnessed a crime? Had they been convicted of a crime?

In cases involving drugs, she often asks jurors if they believe marijuana should be legalized. That prompted laughter and some comments from students. "I think it should be like cigarettes," said student David Sullivan.

Upon hearing that, Katrina wanted him off the jury, but Kristoff wanted him on. Murphy explained that follow-up questions could solve this common problem.

She asked David if he could hear the case without prejudice, and he said he could. He stayed.

The idea, she said, was to eliminate jurors who had feelings about the case, which could lead them to convict or acquit without paying full attention to the facts.

"We want to focus on the evidence," she said. "We want the jurors focused on the facts."

Then she asked the class: Can you find a perfect jury?

The students answered in unison: "No."

"That's right," she said. "I can tell you that from experience."

Perfect jury or not, the students delved into the details of the case. Some argued that Diaz knew what was in the bag, while others said he never looked inside.

Just before the bell rang, two student jurors raised their hands in favor of conviction, while 10 favored acquittal. With more time, the arguments could have continued until all the jurors agreed or the case was declared a hung jury, Murphy said.

Murphy praised the students for delving into issues of credibility and not just taking the word of Diaz and various witnesses at face value.

"You also talked about burden of proof," she said. "Most of you have not heard enough evidence to convince you."

After class, Corryn, who had argued passionately that there wasn't enough evidence in the case to convict, said she had really enjoyed the experience. "At first I thought he was guilty," she said, but then she realized there were too many unknowns.

"I love criminal court cases," she said.

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