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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Philadelphia Hosts Nation's Finest Young Legal Eagles

Philadelphia Inquirer

After the witnesses had been grilled, the evidence entered, and the defendant himself had taken the stand in a dramatic, if theatrical, bid to win acquittal, it all came down to closing arguments.

Prosecutors contended a web of circumstantial evidence led inescapably to the conclusion the defendant had committed aggravated assault when a flash mob gathered on Independence Mall. The defense attorney countered that the charges against high school student Maddox Hale were more guesswork than police work.

"It is the prosecutor's task to prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt - what you saw today was only doubt," said Matt Caponigro, of South Bend, Ind., who led the defense team.

In the end, though, the jurors kept the verdict to themselves - at least for a little while.

That's because the case was fictional, part of a national mock-trial competition playing out in Philadelphia on Friday and Saturday, with the Pennsylvania Bar Association as its host. The winners were to be named only at the end of the competition Saturday evening.

The mock trials were conducted in City Hall courtrooms and the Criminal Justice Center, which hummed with students, family members, and lawyers.

About 750 students from 41 states, the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and South Korea competed in 89 mock trials to see who thought fastest on their feet, made the most powerful arguments, and had the most unshakable command of the legal issues.

Each of the teams had finished first in state competitions. Lawyers from around the country volunteered to judge, write case materials, or to help out in other ways. Among the jurors in the final round was Judge Marjorie Rendell of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

Representing Pennsylvania was Scranton Preparatory School. Mendham High School in north Jersey represented New Jersey.

The pressures of the last few weeks have been intense.

"The teams are spending 20 hours a week preparing for this; it really is a journey for the teams that make it," said one of the organizers, Jane Meyer, a lawyer and clerk for Dauphin County Judge Jeannine Turgeon.

The case centered on the fictional high school senior, a rabble-rouser with a revolutionary bent who made it his mission to undermine the authoritarian principal of John Peter Zenger High School, a troubled inner-city school near Independence Hall.

The case draws much of its inspiration from the Revolutionary War era. For added measure, Meyer and others who wrote the case material, including Paul Kaufman, an assistant U.S. attorney in Philadelphia, crafted a tortuous fact pattern open to multiple interpretations.

The facts, as outlined in the case materials, were these:

School principal Carter Braxton took over in 2007 promising to restore order after a period of violence and gang activity. He banned gangs, greatly increased the number of security guards, installed security cameras, and sharply restricted movement of students in the building.

The students chafed under the new discipline, none more so than Maddox Hale, who, during debate club meetings, fulminated against the principal.

As part of his campaign of agitation, Hale organized a student rally across the street from the school on Feb. 27, 2009.

Days before the rally, an anonymous message was posted on a social-networking Web site called Jitter urging students to join the rally and begin pelting security guards with rock-filled snowballs when Hale, in a speech, uttered the legendary words of John Paul Jones, "I have not yet begun to fight."

Hale and another student were arrested when the event played out as advertised.

To some expert outside legal observers, the thin skein of facts tying Hale to the snowball throwing or urging others to act violently made the prosecution case a bit of a stretch.

"My first instinct would be that in Philadelphia, of all places, where the Constitution enshrined the right of free speech, this is a perfect example of someone exercising that right," said Robert C. Heim, chairman of the litigation department at Dechert L.L.P. "He can't be held responsible for the wayward acts of some unnamed person."

Hale, according to the case material, took his revolutionary role so seriously that he adopted Revolutionary-era speech.

In the first round, David Kern of the South Bend High School team, played the role of Maddox Hale with exaggerated theatricality, fulminating about his constitutional rights in a convincing, colonial-era accent, and explaining that he had wanted to peacefully pursue his dispute with the principal by running for student body president.

"I decided to follow in the footsteps of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln," he testified in a booming voice.

It was a passionate performance, for sure. But under the terms of the competition, he would have to wait until the awards dinner Saturday night to find out whether he had been acquitted.

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