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Richard Montgomery High School wins 2019 mock-trial championship

ANNAPOLIS – Richard Montgomery High School defeated Baltimore City College Friday to win the Maryland 2019 high school mock-trial championship after a two-hour battle at the state’s highest court on a subject all-too familiar to the battling teens: cyberbullying.

The Rockville team represented the “prosecution” in charging a student, “Biff Tannen,” with having harassed her estranged girlfriend – “Marty McFly” — to the point of emotional trauma with an Instagram post mocking the time she got sick in the school’s media center and with online comments calling her “a witch,” “a disaster,” “a crybaby” and suggesting she kill herself.

The Baltimore team, in “defense” of Tannen, argued that the post was meant not to harass but to amuse – and perhaps reignite – an extinguishing teenage romance with what counsel said was the kind of deprecating humor, or “trash talk,” that was part of their relationship.

Left unmentioned during the proceeding was the hypothetical case’s kinship with Grace K. McComas, a 15-year-old Woodbine girl who killed herself on Easter Sunday in 2012 after being called “worthless” online by an older teenager, who also posted vulgar insults and a death threat. Her death led the General Assembly to pass Grace’s Law in 2013, the anti-cyberbullying statute at the heart of the hypothetical case, Maryland v. Biff Tannen.

Richard Montgomery student Daniela Brigatti, in the role of prosecutor, said in her opening statement that McFly was “publicly targeted and humiliated online” by Tannen, a person whose attentiveness she had once loved but which had taken “a dark and malicious turn” toward possessiveness, jealousy and harassment.

Baltimore City College student Lia Gilleran, playing defense counsel, countered that Tannen’s post and comments were “simply a joke between two friends” that was misunderstood.

“They were not kind, but they were certainly not criminal,” Gilleran said of the comments in her opening statement.

Presiding over the mock trial, Court of Appeals Judge Michele D. Hotten ruled on the students’ objections to their opposing counsel’s improperly leading questions and hearsay references with the same respect she likely showed real attorneys when she was a Prince George’s County Circuit Court judge. Clearly impressed by the students, Hotten said in ruling on one of the objections that she was recalling her days as a trial judge.

In the mock testimony, Richard Montgomery’s Ayesha Khawaja, playing alleged victim McFly, testified she was “mortified” by Tannen’s post and barrage of comments insulting her.

“Every single post was like a knife through the heart,” she said. “It follows me everywhere I go.”

The Baltimore school’s Kayla Goodwin, in the role of Tannen, said the post and comments were “just trash talking between friends,” as they had done on many occasions.

“Marty was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Tannen said. “I wanted to make a joke. I wanted to make my girlfriend laugh.”

The prosecution put on a “clinical psychologist,” played by Richard Montgomery student Josh Yu, to testify that the online assault caused McFly to suffer acute post traumatic stress disorder. Cyberbullying is “more long lasting than even the abusive hand of an adult,” Yu said.

The defense put on a “guidance counselor,” played by the Baltimore school’s Lucy Hubbard, who testified that Tannen’s post and comments did not constitute cyberbullying, which she said requires a pattern of posts.

“This one incident, it does not rise to a pattern,” Hubbard said. “This is one post.”

In closing arguments, defense attorney Sophia Adams of Baltimore City College, said the “inocuous Instagram post” was not evidence of malicious intent, but rather an effort by Tannen at “cheering up her girlfriend.”

Prosecutor Gillian Smith, of Richard Montgomery, said Tannen’s post and comments constituted a “malicious course of conduct” that caused McFly to suffer emotional distress.

Smith urged the “court” to “send a message to cyberbullies that the First Amendment does not protect this kind of harassment.”

In the end, Hotten, flanked by two scoring judges, told the competitors they “all did an exemplary job” and that Richard Montgomery had won by a score of 57-46.

“You were thinking outside the box, which is exactly what an advocate is expected to do,” Hotten said. “It is so inspiring to me.”

Dan Evans, who has served as Richard Montgomery’s mock trial coach for about 30 years, praised his team as “a very committed group of kids.”

Every year is “a new case, a new set of kids, it’s still fun.”

Baltimore City College coach Patrick Daniels said he was “super proud” of his all-girls team who have dubbed themselves “ladies above the law.”

“They got together and they came up with a theory of the case,” Daniels said, adding that the team has no seniors. “They’ll all be back next year.”

The annual Maryland State Bar Association Statewide High School Mock Trial Competition, which began in 1983, is sponsored by the Baltimore-based Maryland Youth & the Law, a nonprofit organization that backs programs to teach students about the law and judicial system.

This year’s competition – the names were borrowed from the 1985 movie “Back to the Future” — began last fall with scores of schools across the state, according to organizers. That number eventually dwindled to a final four: James M. Bennett High School in in Salisbury, Beth Tfiloh High School in Pikesville, Richard Montgomery and Baltimore City College.

The semifinals were held Thursday in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court in Annapolis.


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