Last September, Patrick Campbell was bored, Darryl Perkins took the class only to avoid modern dance, and Shelia Miller, intelligent but shy, never dreamed she d wind up as a key speaker before an audience of 200 at D.C. Superior Court.
Yet these Coolidge High School students and five of their classmates triumphed recently in the 16th annual D.C. mock trial competition. The students' local victory put them in the national contest, pitting them against teams from 34 states. The competition, the culmination of a year-long course on consumer, housing, family and criminal law, enables high school students to portray lawyers and witnesses in a mock trial before U.S. District Court judges. In the competition, the teams portray either the defense or the prosecution in the trials.
In April, in a fictitious but emotional AIDS discrimination case, the Coolidge students used their skills as forceful lawyers and credible witnesses to defeat 25 teams from 14 D.C. high schools -- including two teams from Coolidge -- in a city mock trial competition. A month later, the student law team was back in court, arguing the finer points of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 in the first national mock trial competition.
The high school law course, known as street law, is now taught nationwide, but originated in the District through the efforts of Georgetown University law school faculty and students. Edward O Brien, a founder of the D.C. program, recalled that initially the public schools were skeptical. "We had to convince them we weren t going to lead students down the hall to a protest in the principal s office."
Street law is part of the curriculum in 14 D.C. public high schools, according to program director Richard Roe.
"We also want to educate students about when a lawyer is or is not needed, and what questions a client should ask. We include a role play between a lawyer and his client," O'Brien said.
At Coolidge, the street law course was taught by Georgetown law students Grace Kim and Dora Kaufman, along with Coolidge instructor Doris Schuman.
"It was not so much that we taught them, but that they taught themselves and we acted as guides," Kaufman said. "At first, the students who played lawyers acted from their opinions. Later, they learned to back up opinions with the law, researching and analyzing both sides of the case."
Patrick Campbell, 15, said his boredom vanished quickly. "Things got lively. It was a place where you could argue with someone and have fun. It was okay to shout."
And Campbell recently applied what he learned in consumer law to help his sister. "She received a record in the mail that she hadn t asked for. My sister was ready to pay for it, but I told her, 'You don t have to pay for the record. I know, I do the law.' "
Each street law class is matched with a law firm that volunteers time to advise and talk with students.
When the Coolidge team visited the law firm of Hogan & Hartson, the lawyers acted out a school board meeting concerning the expulsion of a student because he had acquired immune deficiency syndrome. No one knew it during the winter, but the staged meeting touched on issues the Coolidge team would grapple with a few months later during the mock trial competition. Later at D.C. Superior Court, members of the firm, including secretaries and document analysts, played out for the class a trial on mandatory testing for the AIDS virus.
In March, the Coolidge street law students, along with about 200 participants from other District schools, received a booklet of affidavits and background material about the case they would argue before D.C. Superior Court judges three weeks later. In the hypothetical case, a D.C. corrections officer at Lorton Reformatory, fired after testing positive on the AIDS antibodies test, is seeking reinstatement of his job, back pay and $40,000 in damages.
A panel of judges found Coolidge's first-period team, which chose to represent the officer's side of the case, the winner in the competition.
During preparations for the mock trials, Campbell, who played the attorney for the fired officer in the case, coached fellow student Shelia Miller in her role as an expert witness. Miller was able to summon her reserve of quiet strength in the courtroom. Her character firmly but calmly dispelled myths about AIDS, educating the court and the audience.
"I became an actor, playing a part," Miller said. D.C. Superior Court Judge Reggie Walton, who presided over the mock trial, named her most valuable witness during the D.C. competition.
Campbell also coached Mark Coates, 17, who portrayed Dana Barr, the corrections officer who lost his job. Coates, by nature low-key, was doing a good job but did not seem emotional enough in the part. But then, in the final competition in the courtroom, Coates in the role as Barr got angry. "I was fired from my job just because my supervisor didn't like me, and I got upset."
The courtroom broke into applause after Coolidge senior James Brooks gave the closing arguments.
Walton ruled that Coolidge High had defeated Ballou High to capture the D.C. championship.
In preparation for the national competition, Doris Schuman and David Nadvorney, a clinical associate of the D.C. Street Law Program, drilled students on the fundamentals of the Alien and Sedition Acts. David Lang, a former Howard University law professor, volunteered about two weeks going over the arguments of the constitutional law case.. Said Lang, "They have a surprisingly good ability to analyze the issues. And they re natural hams, which makes for very good drama."
During the part of the national contest, in which Coolidge competed against Strom Thurmond High School from South Carolina, Campbell s objections on the grounds of hearsay and irrelevance eliminated an opponent attorney s line of questioning. The witness stepped down after giving only her name.
"It was a very emotional experience for the students -- they spent weekends and evenings preparing for the trials," Schuman said. She recalled the comment that Campbell made shortly before the national competition. "We're family," said Campbell.
There was disappointment when it was announced that two other teams, state champions from Iowa and Arizona, had made it to the finals. Brooks was still angry about being cut off by a judge during his opening statement. But Brooks hadn t heard the comment of his aunt, Olivia Calhoun, who sat in the third row of the courtroom. "I always wanted to be a lawyer," she said. "Seeing James up there is like living a dream deferred."
The Coolidge mock trial team also included Darlene Pearson, Charmane Thomas and Virginia Shoulars.