ANNAPOLIS – Amid echoes of Ferguson, Mo., high-school students from Severna Park and Cumberland battled Friday in the mock trial of a fictional police officer accused of shooting an unarmed 18-year-old man to death without justification.
With his team cast as the prosecution, Severna Park High School student Cory Jeweler said in his opening statement that Michael Case’s arms were raised in surrender when officer Darren Gray fired nine shots into him on a warm, clear day last August.
“It is the police officer’s duty to protect and serve,” Jeweler said to start the championship round of the statewide High School Mock Trial Competition. “Gray didn’t protect and serve anyone. He pulled out his gun and pulled the trigger.”
Allegany High School student Grant Hoover – his team cast as defense counsel – countered that Gray “feared for his life.” Case was not in passive surrender but, having just moments earlier attacked Gray in his patrol car, was rushing toward the officer, Hoover said.
“He kept coming faster and faster, charging the officer,” Hoover said at the trial held in the courtroom of the Court of Appeals, Maryland’s top court. “He [Gray] shot to protect himself. It took nine shots into Michael Case to stop him from charging officer Gray.”
Jeweler and Hoover’s statements were the opening salvos of a nearly two-hour mock trial, with a fact pattern similar to the shooting death last August of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black, by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
A Missouri grand jury ultimately declined to indict Wilson on homicide charges, touching off protests by people concerned that police brutality of young black men is all too common and without any punishment of the officers. The hypothetical case before the students did not identify the race of Gray or Case.
Court of Appeals Judge Lynne A. Battaglia, who presided over the mock trial, ultimately ruled officer Gray not guilty of any of the charges against him: second degree murder, involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office.
Battaglia, a former U.S. attorney for Maryland, said the prosecution put on a strong case but it is difficult to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt when a police officer states that he acted in fear of his life.
“Reasonable force cases are very difficult to prove,” Battaglia told the young competitors. “I’m not sure that seasoned prosecutors could do a better job.”
Though losing its bid for a guilty verdict, Severna Park High School won the bigger prize: A panel of judges found the team had bested Allegany and crowned Severna Park champions of the 2015 Maryland State Bar Association Statewide High School Mock Trial Competition.
When Battaglia announced the result, the winners jumped and hugged each other, an unusual sight in the majestic and generally solemn courtroom.
“You normally do not see this from the prosecution when they win,” Battaglia said. “But I’ll give you leave this time.”
Both Severna Park and Allegany had prosecutors as coaches during the statewide competition, which began with 142 high schools in last fall.
Assistant Anne Arundel State’s Attorney Joanna Petros, a first-year coach, said she often felt like interjecting with objections to defense counsel’s questions as she witnessed the weeks-long trial competitions.
“I’ve tried to restrain myself,” Petros said. “It is very difficult.”
But she said it became quickly apparent in the early competitions that the Severna Park team would succeed, whether they were arguing for the prosecution or the defense.
“They were already prepared,” Petros added. “They knew their case.”
Allegany’s head coach, Cumberland lawyer Robert Alderson, is a civil litigator who said he knew when the fact pattern was distributed last fall that he was ill-prepared to advise the team on a criminal matter. So he asked Michael Baruch, an assistant Allegany County state’s attorney, to be his assistant coach
Under the competition’s rules, a team can be assigned at any given event to be the prosecution or the defense. Thus, they must essentially maintain two teams of six players, with one team prepared to prosecute and the other to defend.
Baruch said he was undaunted when called upon to help coach not only the prosecution but the defense.
“As a prosecutor, it’s easier to see the flaws in the state’s side,” Baruch said of having to prepare the defense argument
That preparation was called upon when a pre-finals coin flip determined that Allegany High School would be defending Gray, while Severna Park High School would be prosecuting the officer.
During the mock trial, the prosecution and defense each called up an eyewitness and experts on crime scene investigations and the use of force. These witnesses were members of the same team that called them to testify and were well skilled not only in direct examination but in deflecting the questions asked on cross examination by the other side.
The prosecution’s eyewitness, played by Severna Park student Katie Jo McMillan, had to explain under cross examination why she initially told police that Case was the aggressor but later said he was holding his arms up in surrender when officer Gray shot him.
“I was in fear for my life,” McMillan said in explaining that she was being interviewed initially by Gray’s fellow officers. “In fear for my life, I lied.”
The defense’s forensics expert, played by Allegany student Ethan Greist, deftly handled the prosecution’s yes-no questions by explaining at length the flaws in the state’s crime scene investigation, which incriminated Gray.
In closing arguments, Maxwell Phillips of Allegany, defended officer Gray’s use of deadly force to repel a charging Case.
“It took nine shots to discontinue the advancement of Michael Case, Phillips said. “This isn’t the case of an innocent young boy. Officer Gray saved his own life.”
Severna Park’s Isabella Pazaryna, in closing for the prosecution, said Gray “fired shot after shot, killing the unarmed Michael Case. He continued to fire shot after shot until Michael Case was dead.”
Battaglia, after handing the verdict to Allegany but the championship to Severna Park, said, “Every one of them qualifies to be a wonderful attorney.”
The annual competition, which began in 1983, is sponsored by the Baltimore-based Citizenship Law Related Education Program, a nonprofit organization that backs programs to teach students about the law and judicial system.
This year’s competition began last fall with 142 schools across the state, according to organizers. That number eventually dwindled to a final four: Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Pikesville, James M. Bennett High School in Salisbury, Severna Park and Allegany.
The semifinals were held Thursday in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court in Annapolis.