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Courtroom course puts prosecutors' skills on trial Class uses mock cases to help lawyers learn


Prosecutor Bill Tucker picked up the handgun and showed it to the jurors.

"The shot from this gun ripped through Helen's back, blew out of her chest and had to be fished out of the post by Officer Novak," Tucker said, his voice rising with rage.

"Mr. Wilson watched as his daughter bled to death on his front porch, the very essence of her in every drop of blood. All because a man could not have her," Tucker said quietly.

Helen O'Neill is not a real victim. The brutal murder described by Tucker never happened.

Tucker, however, is an assistant state's attorney in the county's District Court division. With fellow prosecutors, he's participating in a course covering the art of the jury trial, from jury selection to closing argument.

Tucker's graphic description of Helen's death came as part of Monday's courtroom lesson -- the closing argument.

Taught by the county's senior supervising assistant state's attorney, Michael D. Rexroad, the course focuses on a fictitious defendant, Joseph O'Neill, who is charged with the murder of his estranged wife, Helen.

Through lectures and practice in the courtroom, the up-and-coming prosecutors get a chance to cross-examine a defense witness, make opening statements and closing arguments, and find out what it's like to stand before a jury.

The jury in this trial is comprised of Rexroad and prosecutors from county circuit and district courts who critique the courtroom performances.

The course is the same one offered annually by the Maryland State's Attorneys' Association at its "prosecutors school," where Rexroad teaches the closing argument class.

But the association limits its course to about 30 prosecutors each session. And the course may not be offered next year because of state budget cuts.

Since the county state's attorney's office in the Circuit Court division has had such a large staff turnover in the past year -- with prosecutors from District Court replacing most of the seven departed prosecutors -- the course is being offered "in-house" to all the District Court prosecutors and the new Circuit Court prosecutors.

"We hope to give them a familiarity with the principles and techniques of prosecuting a jury trial from beginning to end," said Rexroad.

Prosecutors from District Court say the course is valuable because District Court trials are heard only by a judge, not a jury.

"When you're speaking to 12 people it's more difficult, you're forced to look at each juror," said Assistant State's Attorney Shawn Larson after his closing argument.

"It'll be good to have the experience when I eventually come up to Circuit Court. It's not the real thing, but it's as close as we can get."

The file for "The State vs. Joseph O'Neill" contains summaries of trial witnesses, the defendant's statements to police, grisly crime-scene photos and crime lab reports.

O'Neill, an unemployed mystery writer, is charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Helen. O'Neill allegedly shot Helen from his car as she stood at the door of her stepfather's house.

In keeping with the aura of authenticity, one student even lent his licensed .40-caliber Glock handgun to the class as the murder weapon.

Following closing arguments on Monday, the "jury" provided the prosecutors with constructive criticism and even some words of praise.

Rexroad stressed the importance of "personalizing" the victim during a trial by making effective use of pictures, clothes and belongings.

"Helen isn't here, the one way you can remind the jury of her is through clothing and personal items," Rexroad said.

He demonstrated by picking up "Helen's" jacket to show the jury where the bullet ripped it.

In an example from an actual trial, Rexroad recalled how he argued successfully to have slain state trooper Theodore D. Wolf's hat entered into evidence in the trial of Eric Tirado last summer.

Treat physical evidence such as weapons with respect before a jury, Rexroad advised. Asking the sheriff to check the gun for safety before showing it to the jury might be a nice touch, he added.

After listening to one closing argument, Gary Weissner, an assistant state's attorney in Circuit Court, suggested that the prosecutor should substitute the word "murder" for "kill" for more impact.

Following Tucker's closing argument the "jury" praised his emotion and use of exhibits. They also advised him to make sure he doesn't have to fumble around at the exhibit table to locate the needed item.

"If you're going to screw up, it's better to screw up in front of them," Tucker said.

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