Imagine that you're trying to do the right thing - you see a driver behaving badly, so you speed up to try to read the car's license plate. But inadvertently, you squeeze another car off the road, injuring the passengers. Are you guilty of reckless driving and leaving the scene of the crime?
That, in a nutshell, is the question that teams of Howard County high school students have been arguing during a series of mock trials held during the past several months. Students played the part of defense lawyers, prosecutors, witnesses and defendants, taking their cases to real courtrooms, where they played out the trial in front of real lawyers and judges.
The county's two top teams - Glenelg and Hammond high schools - are now preparing to compete Tuesday and Wednesday against two teams from Anne Arundel County. The top two teams from that match-up - regardless of which county they are from - will go on to regional competitions April 8 and 9, and the winners from there go to state semifinals and then finals, April 24 and 25.
The mock trial program, which started in Maryland in 1983, is run by The Citizenship Law-Related Education Program for the Schools of Maryland, with cooperation from the State Bar Association and the Maryland Judicial Conference. The idea is to give students a sense of what would be involved in a law career.
Each year, competing teams in the state are given the same case. They argue it again and again, sometimes in the role of defense and sometimes as prosecutors. Most schools find local attorneys to volunteer as mentors.
The cases, often based on real events but fictitious in the details, must be fairly complex, without a clear right side and wrong side, in order to give the students plenty to work with.
For the 2007-2008 school year, the case was the State of Maryland v. Jessie Malloy. Students were given thick books with the pertinent facts: Malloy, a straight-A student at the University of Maryland, was driving home when the barrel of a gun emerged from the window of a pickup in front of her. A shot rang out, putting a hole in her windshield and narrowly missing her.
Malloy swerved to the side of the road to regain her composure, then decided to catch up to the pickup and get the license number. While she was weaving in and out of traffic, she grazed a Volvo, causing minor injuries to four passengers. Unaware that she had hit the Volvo, she continued her chase until she was apprehended by a state trooper and charged with reckless driving and leaving the scene of a crime.
In the competition, the merits of the case don't matter as much as the skill students display presenting their side. Though the judge decides for either the defense or the prosecution, the more important measure is the point system for opening and closing statements, and cross-examinations, as well as their roles as witnesses.
Though the rules of the trial are modified so the case takes about an hour, instead of days or weeks, students must follow courtroom protocol, calling the judge "your honor" and saying things like, "May I approach the bench?" and "May I approach the witness?"
Mary Pizzo, who organizes the program in Howard County, said all the students in the competition have worked hard and taken the mock trials seriously. "They do a real good job," she said.
Earlier this month, students from River Hill High School were the defense team and students from Glenelg were prosecutors as they argued the case in Howard County's circuit court, before Judge Wayne Brooks.
"We're not allowed to coach during the match," noted Mike Krouse, the adviser for River Hill's team, as he waited for Brooks to render a verdict. "They've got to do it all on their own."
River Hill lost that competition.
Benedicte Greenberg, the adviser for the Glenelg High School team, said both Glenelg and Hammond were the best in the county, with five wins and one loss each. Glenelg beat Hammond when the two schools went head to head, but Hammond has the most overall points, she said.
"They are first and we are second, which is kind of ironic since we won against them," she said.
Greenberg, a foreign language teacher, is a former attorney, and she says she is enjoying her first year as the mock trial adviser at Glenelg.
"The kids are wonderful, absolutely wonderful, very committed, meeting several times after school to practice," she said.