Kristi Tousignant//Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer//April 29, 2012
//Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer
//April 29, 2012
The play’s main character begins with a question:
“What’s going on here? This isn’t justice.”
The line was written and performed as part of a class at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. Students wrote and performed the work, called “(IN)JUSTICE for Michael Austin,” based on the life of a Baltimore man who spent 27 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
The class, called Lawyers, Legal Systems and their Social Context, is taught by Robert R. Bowie Jr., founding partner of Bowie & Jensen LLC, and Elliott Rauh, managing director at Single Carrot Theatre. The class is in its fourth year and is taught every spring.
“This is just a different way to have people learn how important what you do is as a lawyer and what the ramifications are of not doing it well,” Bowie said. “It allows you to have that experience before you get out in the real world and make a mistake you can never forget.”
The theory is to teach students about a case by placing them into the experiences and emotions of the attorneys and clients, Bowie said.
“When you write it and act it, it means you have to live it,” Bowie said. “The students end up living the roles of bad lawyers and corrupt people and cops trying to get people convicted. The fact that they live in another man’s shoes is what I think is a great lesson for a lawyer.”
Bowie provides the legal knowledge and Rauh provides the bulk of the theater expertise. Bowie also writes plays in his free time and has had eight plays performed in theaters around Baltimore.
The class, which meets for two hours once a week, chooses a wrongful conviction case to examine every semester. This year’s 35-minute play tells the story of Michael Austin, who was convicted in 1975 of killing a security guard at a convenience store a year earlier.
Austin continued to proclaim his innocence, and his claims caught the attention of Centurion Ministries, a Princeton, N.J.-based nonprofit, in 1998.
Among other things, the investigation found the clerk at the market who had picked out Austin’s mug-shot had told detectives at the scene that the shooter was a light-skinned black man, about 5-foot-8. Austin is dark-skinned and stands well over six feet.
When his case was re-opened in 2001, a judge found that the witness testimony in the first trial was botched and that Austin’s defense attorney was ill-prepared for the trial.
Austin’s conviction was overturned and he was released from prison in December 2001.
“His attorney never listened,” said Amir Heyat, a third-year law student who played Austin in the performance. “Now, when I am an attorney, I am going to go the extra mile.”
Austin was released from prison in December 2001 at the age of 53. He was later pardoned and received $1.4 million in compensation from the state.
“Michael is an extraordinary person because he has so much great positivity,” Heyat said. “I always try to imagine what he would do in a situation.”
The class spends the first part of the semester researching and learning about a case. They read original briefs and transcripts and, in this case, heard about the experience from Austin himself.
Bowie and Rauh then divide the students into groups to work on writing the script, weaving actual testimony from transcripts into the play. This spring’s class structured the play in a series of flashbacks, starting with Austin’s conviction, then going back and showing the events that led up to it.
“We figure out what is the theme, what is story we want to tell,” Rauh said.
The first assignment is for each group to write the first and last scene, Rauh said. The group then decides what they think are the most important scenes, writes them on pieces of paper and lays them on the floor in a storyboarding exercise. Bowie and Rauh assign different portions of the script to each group to produce one rough draft, which Rauh edits down over spring break. The students and professors continue to edit the script down together until there is a final draft, Rauh said.
In the last part of the class, the students learn how to act and deliver their lines. The class met for a four-hour dress rehearsal last week before performing the 35-minute play Monday evening an audience of several dozen people at the law school. The 14 students switched off playing some of the roles, ensuring everyone had a chance to act.
“It’s not a Broadway show but it’s amazing how effective these people are who are lawyers and not actors,” Bowie said.
Austin played music on the trumpet and keyboard during the play, songs he had written himself over the years. He learned to play the trumpet while in prison.
“It became my sanctuary,” Austin said. “It helped maintain my sanity. This is what I love doing because it relaxes me.”
Anton Marino, a third-year student, played the state’s attorney who originally prosecuted Austin but later became convinced of his innocence.
Marino said it was a challenge to get into the prosecutorial role, since he is interested in doing post-conviction work.
“You see how the justice system can fail if a lawyer doesn’t listen to what his client has to say,” Marino said.