Students get court sense at mock trial in Pa.

February 13, 2004|by BONNIE H. BRECHBILL

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Defendant Max Ability, charged with stealing a $35,000 car, was found not guilty in a jury trial at the Franklin County Courthouse Thursday, thanks in part to expert testimony by Dr. Quincy Jones, a psychiatrist specializing in child and adolescent psychology.

Presided over by Franklin County Circuit Judge Carol Van Horn, the mock case was argued by students from two area high schools.

Students from Carlisle (Pa.) High School and Cumberland Valley Christian School of Chambersburg participated in the mock trial competition.

The competition, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Bar Association's Young Lawyers Division, is the first step in a statewide contest. The Carlisle team, which was defending Max, won the competition and will advance to the regionals.


The Franklin County Bar Association hosted the competition for the second year in a row.

The scenario was a criminal case, Commonwealth v. Max Ability, involving a high school student charged with stealing a car. Complicating what seemed like an open-and-shut case was the student's Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism.

Max (who was actually Maxine) was defended by "attorneys" Margaret Bounds, Emma Kaufman and David Punihaole, students at Carlisle High School.

Art Wenzel played expert witness Dr. Jones.

Max and her friend, KC Turner, were found with Turner's grandmother's mint-condition 1967 Ford Mustang. Turner, portrayed by Brittany Crouse of Waynesboro, Pa., said Max had hot-wired the car and driven it to a pizza shop, where Turner called the police.

Max was arrested and signed a confession, but did not state that she had driven the car. People with Asperger's Syndrome, Jones said, are unfailingly honest; if Max had driven the car, she would have said so.

Kaufman made closing arguments for the defense by saying that Turner had posed as Max's friend in order to manipulate her.

"KC was angry and embarrassed because the other kids teased her about not being allowed to drive the car. She abused her position as a trusted friend," she said, by encouraging Max to hot-wire the car.

In her closing arguments for the prosecution, Linde Davenport asserted that Max had definitely committed a crime, and that Turner had attempted to control Max's impulsive behavior.

While the jury was deliberating, Van Horn congratulated the students on "having the nerve to come forward and do what you did tonight. The more opportunities you take to speak before a group, the better citizens you will be, even if you don't pursue a career in law."

Attorneys from the Franklin County Bar Association served as jurors and, through a scorekeeping system, chose the Carlisle students as the winning team.

Several of the attorneys commended the students on their efforts.

Leland Clark said students were as articulate and compelling as what he had seen earlier in the day at a criminal hearing.

Rebecca Dempsey said she was impressed with how the students moved around the courtroom, handled exhibits and asked for permission to approach the witnesses.

The teams gave each other awards at the end of the competition; Kaufman and Davenport were named best advocates, and Wenzel and Michelle Hartman best witnesses.

Kaufman said she thinks she is "heading toward" a career in law or some form of public advocacy.

The mock trial competition enables students to gain a better understanding of the legal profession as well as the judicial system. The Pennsylvania Bar Association program is one of the largest competitions of its kind in the country, with 250 student teams participating last year.

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