Smartly dressed in a business suit, Audrey Hasson, 17, appeared cool and confident as she addressed a Howard County Circuit Court regarding the death of an urban adventurer at the cabin featured in “The Blair Witch Project” movie.
Though it was only a mock trial competition and not a real court case, the Centennial High School senior readily admitted her nerves almost got the best of her.
“It’s like competing in sports,” Hasson said. “I sweat so much.”
An extracurricular activity offered at high schools around the state, mock trials allow teams of students to act as lawyers and witnesses, competing in simulated court cases against other high school teams in front of real judges and attorneys.
“It’s a wonderful program,” said Shelley Brown, executive director of Maryland Youth & the Law, an educational organization that started the program in 1983. “What I like is that it connects kids to the legal community in a meaningful way.”
For several hours after school on Feb. 22, the mock trial groups from Centennial and Marriotts Ridge high schools argued their sides in the Howard County courthouse, presenting evidence and calling witnesses to the stand for questioning.
“The kids really have to learn their roles,” Brown said. “The kids who are attorneys learn the simple rules of evidence. It’s a lot.”
As coach of the Marriotts Ridge mock trial team for the past six years, Ralph Doyle is constantly impressed with his students’ dedication.
“They are the hardest working team,” Doyle said. “I can’t believe kids do this and think it is fun. Most kids have nothing to do with law after this.”
Hasson is looking to pursue a career in computer science. Saachi Aggarwal, 16, a junior at Marriotts Ridge, may pursue a minor in political science.
“I’ve learned and grown so much,” said Aggarwal, who has been part of mock trial for three years. “Public speaking is the biggest thing. I was always scared of it. Mock trial has helped me through it.”
Maurice Frazier, an attorney with the Howard County State’s Attorney’s Office, was a member of his Baltimore high school’s mock trial team in the mid-1990s and realized then that he had found his calling.
“I thought, ‘Yeah, I can do this. I should pursue this,’” Fraizer said. “I spent many Saturdays and Sundays trying to memorize my opening remarks.”
Now, Fraizer enjoys sharing his job and experiences with students at Oakland Mills High School, where he has helped mentor teams.
“I try to be a professional and treat them as adults,” Fraizer said. Before the pandemic, he would take his teams on a tour of the courthouse to see different courtrooms and meet various officials such as the state’s attorney and judges.
“These kids are so smart and so prepared,” Fraizer said. “I joke, ‘Should I be worried?’ about my job.”
Fraizer knows that many of the students he has worked with will not pursue a career in law.
“They can do anything,” Fraizer said. “Mock trial prepares you to do the hard work you need to do to accomplish any goal. I’m pretty happy to see these kids mature in such a fantastic way.”
While the students learn about the legal system, mock trial also teaches skills in research, writing, communicating, acting and public speaking, according to Melissa Montgomery, assistant state’s attorney and organizer of the District 5 mock trial region, which includes schools in Howard, Anne Arundel and Carroll counties.
“Those kids can definitely have a flair for the dramatic,” Montgomery said. “I like working with the kids a lot and being able to share my own love of law with them. They are so excited about it and it makes me so happy.”
Though she never was part of a mock trial team, Montgomery’s mother was a school teacher and inspired her to share her knowledge of the law with students.
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“I have been a part of this program for about six to seven years,” Montgomery said. “We try to make it a full community engagement between the legal world and the kids.”
Even during the pandemic last year, Montgomery was able to host mock trial competitions virtually. Many mock trials were held online this year as well, she said.
Brown said the state’s mock trial program is “fortunate” to have so many attorneys, judges and teachers volunteering in the program.
“It takes an army to run this program,” Brown said. “We have just amazing partners and individuals like Melissa Montgomery. These are the folks on the front lines doing all the organizing, putting together all the schedules and recruiting the lawyers and judges for the competitions.”
As the winners of the case on Feb. 22, Marriotts Ridge High School’s mock trial team advanced to the quarterfinals to play John Carroll High School’s mock trial team from Bel Air virtually on March 2. The semifinals are scheduled for March 9.