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No mockery of justice: Carroll students try their hands at trying cases in legal competition

Jon Kelvey
Contact ReporterCarroll County Times

Tuesday, Feb. 27, in Carroll County Circuit Court. The Honorable Judge Richard Titus presiding. Michael Twery, attorney for plaintiff A.C. Slater, had just finished questioning his witness, Stacey Carosi, a Ph.D. in industrial engineering with regards to human factors, who testified to the degree to which cellphone use can distract a driver.

Slater had filed suit against a Kelly Kapowski, arguing that the teen driver had been distracted by texting on her phone when she struck Slater’s car at an intersection, and should be held liable for negligent driving.

Kapowski’s defense team would argue that it was Slater driving recklessly, speeding into an intersection on a yellow light, with Kapowski entering from the cross street once the light turned green. Lead counsel Olivia Franceschini began to cross examine Carosi.

“How much do you charge to appear in court?”

“$5,000,” Carosi said.

“Is it true that you will not testify without being paid in advance of the date of the trial?”

“Yes,” Carosi said.

It was a good angle of attack for Franceschini, to paint the expert as an indifferent and perhaps pliable hired gun. But would it be good enough to win the competition?

This was no ordinary court case, and these were no ordinary attorneys. Franceschini is a junior at Francis Scott Key High School and Twery a senior at Westminster High School. The plaintiffs and even the witnesses called were, likewise, student actors.

This was the Carroll County semifinals of the Maryland Mock Trial Competition, a statewide program of the Citizenship Law Related Education Program, in cooperation with the Maryland State Bar Association, held in Carroll for the first time after many years of hiatus.

“I would actually be asked at times years ago to be a judge in some of these mock trials,” said Carroll County State’s Attorney Brian DeLeonardo, who helped get the competition running again. “Carroll County is one of only three counties in the state that doesn’t participate. Apparently the county did participate many years ago, but it ultimately folded.”

The Carroll competition involves two teams — plaintiff and defense — in this case from Francis Scott Key and Westminster; in the other semifinal, Liberty v. Century. Teams are given a fabricated court case, in some years criminal and — as was the case in Carroll County Circuit Court on this day, which featured the names of characters from the 1990s show “Saved by the Bell”— in some years civil, DeLeonardo said. The same case is used by all teams across Maryland in that year.

“You have three students on each plaintiff and defense team, and you end up with students playing the witnesses,” DeLeonardo said. “It can actually bring in not only kids interested in legal side, but you will get some of the people interested in acting.”

Each team argues the facts and makes a case before judges in an attempt to win the argument, and the competition — Tuesday marked the Carroll County semifinals, with the finals to be held Tuesday, March 6.

“When there is a winner from our county, they get to compete first regionally, and then if they keep winning statewide, the winners ultimately go down to the Court of Appeals and argue down there,” DeLeonardo said.

DeLeonardo approached Carroll County Public Schools and found an interest in the competition, but no funding for it, so the Carroll County Bar Association stepped in to cover the registration fees.

“I’m just glad the bar had a chance to do this,” Titus said in an interview, speaking both in his capacity as a judge and a member of the bar association. “It’s a great way to give back to the community and hopefully get some folks interested in wanting to go to law school and set that interest at an early age.”

It also provides young people with a view of how the justice system works that is not typically afforded them, Titus added.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people think what happens in court is Judge Judy or the other things that they see on TV,” he said. “I really think it’s different when you’re sitting in these chairs and you’re the one handling the case.”

And it’s not just about fostering an interest in the legal profession, DeLeonardo said.

“One of the things for me is in today’s world, it’s nice for kids to actually learn how to make a coherent argument and defend their position,” he said. “It’s a huge benefit.

Plus, DeLeonardo added, it’s a different type of interschool competition than is normally seen in Carroll County.

“This is a great academic competition,” he said. “We always see basketball and football, but it’s really neat when you see Liberty and Century battling it out in the court room, not just on a basketball court.”

Other benefits notwithstanding, for, Twery, it was definitely the law that drew him to participate in the mock trial competition.

“I’ve always been interested in being a lawyer, so it’s a great opportunity,” he said. “You get to work with real judges? That’s awesome.”

The rest of the Westminster High School plaintiff attorney team, freshman Allison Lord and Alex Robinson, are also interested in the law, although freshman Dewey Schwartz, who played plaintiff A.C. Slater, said it’s more of a backup career plan in his mind.

“When we first started I was pretty glad I wasn’t an attorney, because it seemed pretty difficult. I’m really proud of them for working through it,” Schwartz said. “For next year I think I want to try to be an attorney, because I think I could really help the team.”

After each team made its closing arguments, the three “judges” — serving Carroll County Circuit Court Judge Titus was joined by Ned Coyne and Christian Horn, assistant state’s attorney and assistant public defender by day, respectively — retired to confer and render their judgment.

The two teams burst into nervous chatter, but none were more anxious than the teams’ coaches.

“It is more nerve-wracking watching the kids doing it than me doing it,” said Scott Curtis, of Westminster, an attorney with the Maryland Attorney General’s Office who was an attorney coach for the Westminster team. “The coaches are in the back, and we’re sitting on our hands and we’re thinking, ‘Object! Object!’ ”

During the recess, Curtis said, he wasn’t sure how things would turn out, as the case was extremely close, but that kept things interesting.

“It’s designed to be evenly split to give each side a chance. I put it in terms of, what is a rabbit they can chase and what is a rabbit hole not to fall into,” he said. “They love the adrenaline, they love the competition. It’s everything. It’s like the Geek Olympics.”

The courtroom drew silent and everyone rose for the re-entry of the judges, just as they would during a real trial, and Titus spoke to just how difficult a decision it was to make.

“Tonight was the closest in scores I have had,” he told those in the courtroom. “It was a real close night for me.”

The verdict? The judges found for the plaintiffs, awarding 53.7 points to the team from Westminster High School, and 47 points to the team from FSK. Westminster will next face Liberty on March 6 in the final competition.

It was disappointing for the team from Key, but by no means devastating, according to Franceschini.

“Honestly it’s been really fun up to this point, and I am about to start sports soon,” she said. “It’s been so fun, and it was really great meeting everybody and I really hope to do it next year.”

Count on Titus as an eager participant in future mock trial seasons as well, unless fellow Carroll County Circuit Court Judge Fred Hecker, who has also judged some of the competitions, beats him to it.

“We were just joking I may have to wrestle Judge Hecker for it,” Titus said. “As long as the schools continue to do it, I will continue to volunteer to do it. This is really great fun.”

Editors Note: A previous version of this story misidentified the organization that runs the Maryland Mock Trial program. It is a program of the Citizenship Law Related Education Program, in cooperation with and sponsored by the Maryland State Bar Association.

jon.kelvey@carrollcountytimes.com

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