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Owings Mills mock trial demystifies expert witnesses

A murmur went up from the courtroom gallery in Owings Mills as the defendant’s name was called in the case of U.S. v. Bernard L. Madoff. Sensing a tough crowd, the accused stood up and opened his wallet, as if to begin making reparations.

The laughter that followed made clear this was no ordinary trial at Stevenson University. It was, in fact, a “courtroom dramatization,” as a video board explained at the start last week of the school’s fifth annual Forensics Symposium. The event was designed to show off Stevenson’s forensic studies graduate program to prospective students and the community. It also gave current students a taste of trial work, in this case proving that Madoff attempted to hide assets in a foreign bank account.

“Our students, when they come through the program, should be prepared to testify as expert witnesses no matter what their field is,” said Carolyn H. Johnson, an associate professor. “It gives them an idea how we use our experts.”

Johnson played Madoff’s prosecutor, a role she was familiar with, having been both a state and Baltimore City prosecutor. Other faculty members played expert witnesses, judge and bailiff, while the jury consisted of community members.

And alumnus Myron Bretholz played Madoff, who pleaded guilty last year to overseeing a fraud scheme that cost his investors $20 billion in losses and is now serving a 150-year prison term. Bretholz, a legal investigator, graduated in May and happily accepted the role.

“This school’s been very good to me,” he said.

The mock trial was in the works for the past year, the brainchild of Thomas Coogan, the forensic studies program coordinator. The evidence included copies of Madoff’s actual tax returns, signature, fingerprints, ID card and office floor plans.

“I think that’s probably why he pleaded guilty,” Coogan said. “There was so much evidence.”

As expert witnesses testified, the courtroom’s 21 monitors showed the evidence and explained the steps of a trial to the audience and students in classrooms on campus watching the trial on a live video stream.

Stephanie Witt used the security log and office plans to show that Madoff was in his office the day the alleged fund transfer took place. It was the first time on the witness stand for Witt, a graduate assistant who will graduate in May and wants to be a latent print examiner.

“It was a little overwhelming,” she said afterward. “The courtroom is a little intimidating.”

Part of the job of a forensic investigator is learning to clearly explain findings on the witness stand, said John J. Tobin Jr., a forensic science professor and expert witness who matched Madoff’s fingerprints to ones found on his secretary’s keyboard.

“You can be the best thing in the world in the lab, but in forensics, if you can’t explain it to the jury you’re worthless,” he said.

Other expert witnesses demonstrated that Madoff used his secretary’s computer to access the foreign bank account and received e-mails to his “personal account” from a bank employee alerting him to an investigation. (“All of your funds are safe and making a wonderful return,” the employee wrote.) A forensic accountant performed a net worth analysis to show that Madoff made $51 million in 2007 but only reported income of $9.6 million.

Then it was Bretholz/Madoff’s turn to take the stand. After three minutes of denying that he had transferred the funds, Bretholz stepped down. Jurors deliberated for about 10 minutes and came back with a verdict: not guilty based on the evidence before them. A relieved Bretholz thanked his lawyer and opened his wallet again, this time facing the jury.

Bretholz was all smiles as he headed to the reception that followed the verdict.

“I get to live another day,” he said.