Twenty Canton Middle School students appeared in Baltimore Circuit Court yesterday -- not because they had committed any crimes, but to learn a lesson in tolerance.
They wound up learning about history and the American legal system as well.
The vehicle for their education was a mock trial before Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan of Christopher Columbus on charges of genocide for the alleged systematic destruction of Indian tribes after he arrived in the Western Hemisphere half a millennium ago, seeking riches and converts to Christianity.
"These kids are part of the upcoming generation. Our purpose is to bring them to the realization that we must be tolerant of people with different beliefs and values," said Bailey Trueman, the school's community service coordinator. "What this is is interactive learning," he added.
For the past several weeks, 10 eighth-grade girls and 10 sixth-grade girls at the school worked to develop a script for the trial. They were aided by two volunteer attorneys from the Maryland State Bar Association's Young Lawyers Section.
Yesterday, the students, many dressed in period costumes, presented their cases.
In an echo of the debate that was waged throughout the hemisphere in this, the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in America, a team of prosecutors argued that Columbus murdered and tortured Indians for gold and because of what he considered their pagan religious beliefs. It called as witnesses Indian leaders and members of Columbus' crew who recounted instances of hands being cut off and homes burned.
But the defense, while acknowledging that some Indians were killed, countered that many of the deaths were accidental and said that Columbus should not be made the "scapegoat" for the acts of a few misguided men under him. It called as witnesses Queen Isabella of Spain and Columbus himself, who said most of the deaths were the result of "misunderstandings between people who could not communicate."
During the trial, the students, part of a schoolwide mentoring program supported by a grant from the Abell Foundation, cross-examined witnesses, registered objections and made impassioned closing arguments.
"There are many budding trial lawyers in this group," Judge Kaplan said after the hourlong trial, adding, "Some of them did as well as some of the regular trial lawyers I see in this courtroom."
While awaiting the jury's verdict, he told the students that whether or not Columbus was guilty of the systematic destruction of native tribes was not as important as that they "understand how unfair the conduct of [the Spaniards] was. You have to learn that those kinds of things should not happen."
Kelli Hunt, a sixth-grader who adopted the role of Columbus in the trial, said she enjoyed "getting to be in a courtroom and getting the experience of being on trial."
Ranell Hopkins, who gave the closing argument for the defense, said she was told "to end with feeling."
"I feel when I grow up I want to be a lawyer. They have more fun than being anything else. You have to stay in school a long time, but it'll pay off," the eighth-grader said.
Another eighth-grader, Nakeysha Jones, took the stand as a Taino Indian chief and testified that when Columbus did not receive enough gold, "he would have our hands cut off, set dogs on our children and burn our homes."
"I enjoyed trying to get the truth out," she said.
Pat Rossi, whose daughter Christina, an eighth-grader, was one of the prosecutors in the mock trial, said her daughter practiced her part for a total of six hours Sunday and Monday nights. "She'd say, 'Am I too loud? Am I too soft? How does this sound?' "
"She's learned a lot," Ms. Rossi said of her daughter. "It's good for history and public speaking, and it's good for their morale. It's given them a reason to go to school."
Christina and the other 19 Canton middle-schoolers even learned a lesson in inconclusiveness: When the jury of adults returned after 40 minutes of deliberation, it announced it could not reach a verdict.
"I can't sentence somebody who hasn't been found guilty," Judge Kaplan said. "I'll just let him leave with a severe warning: Don't come back in this court again."