Teens' murder case was fake, but what they learned wasn't

The Baltimore Sun

The murder was fake, the trial scripted, the kids reading off notes to play their roles of cops, lawyers, witnesses and jurors as part of an exercise to learn the ins and outs of the criminal justice system. But the courtroom and judge were real, and the best moments were unrehearsed.

It was the young Chaivez Brown ad-libbing an end to the prosecution's closing argument, telling jurors "it could've been you" at the other end of the bullet that killed the maintenance worker, infusing some passion into the case.

It was 15-year-old India Mouton learning the nuance of language when, as a prosecutor, she asked the teen playing the part of lab director, "How did you find the body? Was he on his side?" and quickly learned she had improperly led her own witness to a conclusion.

"Objection!" yelled Morgan Brown, the teen playing defense lawyer, after a gentle prod from a real public defender sitting in the gallery.

"Sustained," thundered Circuit Judge Althea M. Handy, admonishing Mouton, "Move on to your next question."

The trial took 90 minutes, and in the end the defendant was found not guilty of murder but was convicted of the made-up crime of voluntary intoxication - Josephine Bagman had been drinking when she apparently shot Donald McDaniels in a penthouse apartment at Silo Point in South Baltimore. She had been drunk when she confessed, and when asked by her own attorney whether she committed the crime, answered: "I don't think so."

But the verdict didn't matter. The six-week exercise began with the teens inside the luxury condo building, looking at a body (a cop who was in fact very much alive), interviewing witnesses and securing the crime scene. They went through the crime lab, drew up arrest reports, prepared for trial and learned how to build a case from beginning to end.

It was an elaborate production put on by the South Baltimore Teen Council and staged by volunteers from the city state's attorney's and public defender's offices, Southern District police officers and advisers from the Department of Recreation and Parks.

It was the kids who brought this to life.

Some want to be cops, others lawyers. Mouton plans to be a crime lab technician because, she told me one day, "all my friends are being killed," and she wants to find out why.

It was a sobering moment amid playful banter, a stark reminder of why programs like this are important and necessary.

It's not that the kids learn how to investigate a homicide or gain a new appreciation for the police. It's a chance for the teens to meet professionals, to network, to create opportunities in a city where opportunities for too many are too few.

Warren Andrews knows this all too well. He grew up in Baltimore's Cherry Hill neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s, before it became synonymous with drugs and violence. His parents' friends were the Murphys - Billy Murphy and his father, the well-known family of lawyers.

Andrews had a mentor - the younger Billy went to Poly, he went to Poly. The younger Billy went to law school, he went to law school. Andrews told me there was no question growing up that he would be a lawyer. He's now a public defender, one of the volunteers who helped guide these teens through the trial.

It was his hand on Morgan Brown's shoulder urging her to object at precisely the right moment; it was his voice stepping in to help Chaivez Brown form his next question to the cop on the witness stand; it was him "begging the court's indulgence" to offer sage advice to the bewildered teens.

The rehearsal had gone much smoother. But that was performed in a recreation center nearly a week ago. Now they were standing in a real courtroom in front of a real judge and a real sheriff's deputy - Andrews told me he trembled the first time he stepped into a courtroom to try a case.

And their audience Thursday night included not only the prosecutors and defense attorneys who had spent weeks with them but also the city police commissioner and two of his top commanders.

Handy told the kids they did "a fantastic job" and she would've sustained more objections, but "I wanted to throw you off and see how you'd react."

Later, the judge told me it's "unfortunate that some of the kids I see in my courtroom aren't exposed" to programs like this. Warren Andrews echoed that sentiment, saying kids "need to be pushed in the right direction."

It doesn't matter if any one of these teens become cops or lawyers or crime lab technicians. That's not the point of all this. What matters is that they become something.

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