Judge rules Severna Park winner

High school's mock trial team takes first place in state championship

April 30, 2006|By KAREN NITKIN | KAREN NITKIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In a packed Annapolis courtroom Friday, Severna Park High School won the Maryland State Bar Association's 23rd annual high school mock trial competition.

The teens successfully argued a fictional case against The Sun, represented by Park School of Baltimore.

Judge Clayton Greene Jr., who sits on the state Court of Appeals and presided over the case, said the Severna Park team would have won if it had been presented to him in real life.

"Your performance today was outstanding," he told all the competitors. "It was just a joy."

All mock trial teams that compete in Maryland are given the same make-believe case for the school year, and work with teachers and attorney-coaches, learning the underlying legal principles of the case as well as courtroom etiquette.

A coin toss decides which side of the case will be argued by each team during competitions during the school year. Students are judged on a point system for the way they deliver opening statements, closing arguments and cross-examinations, as well as their roles as witnesses.

Mark Snyder, attorney-coach for the Severna Park team for six years, said working with the students is "a labor of love."

Severna Park's mock trial team is so competitive that auditions are held in the fall, said Kaitlyn Murphy, 18, a senior who has been on the team for four years. This year, more than 40 students tried out for 12 slots, she said.

"Practices are very intense and very long," she said.

Severna Park has been undefeated at the county level for the past four years, but had never made it as far as the semifinals. Park was the state champion two years ago, and lost at the county level last year.

"We're very hungry," Severna Park's teacher-adviser JoAnn Best said last week, before the competition.

This year, four teams - Park, Severna Park, Allegany High School and Baltimore City College - argued their cases at the semifinals on Thursday afternoon.

Each team had six members: three witnesses and three lawyers. They, plus various team coaches, proud parents and interested lawyers, filled the courtroom Friday. All the students were dressed in their legal best, the boys in neckties and the girls in stockings and heels.

And they never broke out of character. A few people laughed when David Peck, 17, a junior at Park, announced that he was a 55-year-old city editor, but by the end of his testimony it almost seemed plausible.

This year's case centered on a make-believe Sun article about a woman who had run off with her child, who was in the legal custody of her ex-husband.

A Sun reporter, meanwhile, had written about a mother who had abducted her child, and the father believed the article was about his family. He wanted the reporter to reveal his source. Also at issue was whether the mother had been abusing the child.

The Severna Park team, acting as plaintiff, argued that The Sun must reveal its sources for the article to protect the child.

"Johnny Howard is still missing and is in grave danger," said Eric Robinson, 15, a sophomore at Severna Park.

The Park team claimed The Sun did not have to divulge its sources, and that the boy seemed fine.

Brad Mendelson, a Park School senior, raised several issues: There was no proof that the woman in the article was the same June Harris who had abducted her child, and since the mother kept moving with her son, a several-months-old Sun article had no useful information anyway.

"The information the plaintiff is seeking is neither substantive, material nor relevant," he said. The judge occasionally offered advice to the faux lawyers and witnesses. He also was not averse to mining a few laughs from the attentive audience.

He told one student to answer a question first, then qualify it, not the other way around. "Answer the question and you can embellish all you want," he said. He told another to wait until a question had been fully asked before objecting.

"What we have here is a continuing crime," similar to a kidnapping, he said, adding that he believed the child would have been in real danger.

Several students said the mock trial competitions had inspired them to consider careers in law.

"I was interested in law a little," said Lauren Lewis, a senior who delivered opening remarks for the Severna Park side. "But this has really pushed me more to a career in law."

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