The usual suspects slowly filed into the empty room. Most knew the drill by now, but for those who didn’t, the routine was quite simple: food, speech, smiles, laughs, pictures…and then the five-month adventure is officially over. To the veterans, the ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel Annapolis on April 25 was just a different setting for the same waltz; but to the few greenhorn participants, the 2008 Maryland State Bar Association’s High School Mock Trial Awards Ceremony was a taste they wanted to savor.
Familiar faces spread from table to table during this luncheon following the State Championships at the Robert C. Murphy Court of Appeals. Half the members from last year’s runner-up, Allegany High School, returned on this year’s final-four team (one student was even on the school’s 2006 final four squad); The Salisbury School repeated their 2007 final-four finish with nearly the same team, but new Teacher Coach Judy Sieg; and while Baltimore County’s Park School and Anne Arundel County’s Severna Park High School only had a handful of players left over from their 2006 finalist teams, the outcome remained the same as Severna Park again bested their northern opponents for the state crown.
An oft-repeated saying through the Mock Trial competition is that, between the state’s top teams, there is little disparity in skill level – their ability, knowledge and poise truly rival one another. What usually tips the scales in these match-ups are the performances and the championship face-off served as a perfect example. Park defended college-senior Jessie Malloy on her four counts of aggressive driving in her case against the State of Maryland, played by Severna Park. Though aggressive driving is a relevant and timely topic – the standard aim for Mock Trial organizers Citizenship Law-Related Education Program (CLREP) for the Schools of Maryland – this case had an added twist of a gun barrel and vigilante justice. Malloy claimed that a gun barrel appeared out of the rear-window of a truck and fired at her. She continued to follow the truck in order to identify to police this traveling threat, and in doing so was accused of causing an accident. With Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell presiding, he found the defendant innocent; the closely contested match, however, was awarded to Severna Park in large part due to their witnesses’ performances.
“It’s an interesting case,” says CLREP Assistant Director Shelley Wojciechowski, who, throughout the season, saw many different interpretations of the witnesses, leading to even balanced verdicts of guilty and not guilty. “It’s all up to the team to how they cast the defendant. I’ve seen some play [Malloy] as an airhead – kind of dopey. And I’ve seen others be very matter-of-fact – upholding their civic duty.”
For the championship performance judge Alan Carmel, an attorney and 20-year servant of Mock Trial in various capacities, both teams were “absolutely superb.” His praise should not be taken lightly as he claimed to have been a part of some “terrific teams” while aiding Baltimore City’s Woodlawn High School in the mid-1990s, and there were a few people at the ceremony that could attest to those claims.
Speaking before this high school contingent was Thiru Vignarajah, a former Mock Trial participant who graduated from Woodlawn in 1994 and went on to Yale College (where he started their Mock Trial team), as well as Harvard Law School. Though he preceded Carmel’s teams (yet his younger sister did end up under Carmel’s tutelage), Vignarajah still experienced success at the west Baltimore school, reaching the state semi-finals in his last two years. Now an attorney for Arnold & Porter, LLP, in Washington, D.C., this extracurricular pastime still holds a special place in his heart.
“Without Mock Trial, I don’t know if I would have found my calling in law,” Vignarajah admits. As a teenager, he explains, he had dreams of “going pro in basketball or Tetris,” but Mock Trial allowed him to discover himself and make lasting relationships. “You’re sitting with your best friends today,” he warmly cautions.
That sentiment echoed all too loudly for Mary Campbell-Hergenhan, who was seated at a front-row table next to Wojciechowski – her colleague and successor at CLREP. Hergenhan ran the Mock Trial competition for a number of years and struck up a number of friendships that continue through today, including one with Vignarajah.
“We’ve come a long way,” says Wojciechowski.
As the Maryland High School Mock Trial competition celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, the 40,000+ participants in that span all seemingly had a hand in the finale – the perfect crescendo to this silver-marked year. The capacity crowd in the state’s highest court brimmed into the parlor as Wojciechowski was astonished at the sight of “more [people] than I’ve ever seen [here] before.” The crowd was rewarded with the closest scored match in finals history, 56-54. The “razor-thin margin” does not do justice to what all these accomplished students have in store for them.
“Whether you’re a lawyer or not,” MSBA President-Elect Kathy Kelly Howard said at the Awards Ceremony, “we all have the opportunity to make a positive impact.”