Thiru Vignarajah and the Honorable Mary Ellen Barbera, Maryland Court of Appeals, attend the luncheon following the Maryland Mock Trial Finals.
The Maryland State Bar Association (MSBA) concluded their 27th annual Statewide High School Mock Trial Competition on Friday, April 30. Severna Park High School won the championship match, the last of more than 600 mock trial enactments in 2010, over Bishop Walsh School by a narrow margin.
“You are all outstanding young lawyers,” Court of Appeals Judge Mary Ellen Barbera told both teams after the match. Judge Barbera ruled on the championship match, which was held in the Robert C. Murphy Court of Appeals building in Annapolis. “You know how to handle yourselves and think on your feet in an environment that is a little intimidating.”
Since 1983, the Mock Trial Competition has educated and nurtured over 44,000 high school students in areas like public speaking, comprehension of the legal system, analytical skills and leadership. And as the thousands of students grew in mock trial, the competition itself grew in teams and grandeur – the last two mock trial finals have been broadcast live via web cam – but, mock trial hasn’t overtaken the state completely.
The last few years, the Final Four has been compiled of teams that come to Annapolis from the farthest reaches of Maryland’s landscape. This year’s runner-up, Bishop Walsh, and 2009’s champion, Allegany High School, are both from Allegany County; Wicomico County’s Salisbury School had repeat Final Four appearances in 2007 and 2008; and Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy from Montgomery County was a first-time semifinalist in 2010, along with St. Mary’s Ryken High School, from St. Mary’s County, who reached the Final Four after beating Parkside High from Wicomico County.
However, there are counties in Maryland’s central and mid-Eastern Shore regions that do not field a team, including Carroll, Queen Anne’s, Kent and Cecil counties.
“It may require some creative thinking to involve counties that are not as centrally located, but it is very workable,” says Shelley Wojciechowski, assistant director of Citizenship Law-Related Education Program (CLREP), MSBA’s educational arm and organizer of the State Mock Trial Competition.
Some teams, particularly on the lower-shore, that aren’t centrally located, work around that issue by holding two competitions per match. Each team takes a turn at prosecution and defense.
“Mock Trial is an incredibly rich experience for students,” continues Wojciechowski, “and we want as many students as possible involved.”
The 2,000 students that participated in 2010 come from varying backgrounds but all reap the same rewards.
“Both [final] teams were so talented,” says Thiru Vignarajah, one of two attorneys who helped Judge Barbera score the performances of the final match. “It’s refreshing to see the next generation of lawyers in training.”
The next generation looked prepared and sophisticated during the final match on the final day of April. Judge Barbera wore her Court of Appeals robe, a red matching the red in the Maryland flag, and the students before her did their best to look the part. Female attorneys wore business suits, while female witnesses wore colorful dresses; the men wore dark suits and combed their hair as best a teenage boy could. Parents, teachers and attorney coaches were nervous but the teams were quite professional when arguing the case.
The State of Maryland vs. Corey James was a multifaceted criminal case dealing with in-school bullying, assault and battery, self-defense, eye witness accounts and expert scientific opinions. At its core, though, the case is about two teenagers struggling to get along, a scenario easily identified by the students.
“Too often, kids learn about court by being there as a defendant or a victim,” CLREP Executive Director Ellery “Rick” Miller said in the April 15, 2010 Bar Bulletin. “We want to bring the law to life for them while helping them to avoid the pitfalls of senseless behavior.”
Each side, the prosecution and defense, had three witnesses to testify, to which attorneys can cross examine and object, and the match was bookended by opening and closing remarks. Three attorneys try the case for each side; they alternate duties including examining witnesses and oral arguments. The demeanor, presence and poise of these students impressed Vignarajah and provided a bit of nostalgia.
“I can’t help but be a little sentimental,” says Vignarajah, who was on the mock trial team at Baltimore City’s Woodlawn High School in the early 1990s and is now an Assistant United States Attorney. His team made the semifinals, but Vignarajah cherishes the everlasting friendships formed more than the education. Vignarajah says he is still close with his former teammates, who now boast two attorneys, a doctor, computer engineer, home-maker and John Deere salesman.
“It’s exciting to see the Competition grow,” says Wojciechowski, “and we will continue working towards that end.”
CLREP (www.clrep.org) will meet with interested teachers and students to help launch the program and recruit attorney advisors.