“Hear ye, hear ye, the courtroom at Northwood High School is now in session.”
Addressing the classroom-turned-courtroom in Silver Spring, Richard Melnick, president of the Bar Association of Montgomery County, called to order Monday a group of about 30 students or — as they would be known for the next hour - the jury hearing the case of the State of Florida v. George Zimmerman.
Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, was acquitted in July of second-degree murder and other charges for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, a black teenage boy, during a confrontation in Florida last year. The case sparked a national debate on race and the appropriate use of guns.
The students in Silver Spring spent their first-period class learning about and helping re-enact the controversial case with Melnick, as well as Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy and Lauren Turner, a county prosecutor, as part of the bar association’s “Creating an Improved Tomorrow” program.
Monday’s session marked the first of four the county bar association organized at the school, which has a newly formed Academy of Politics, Advocacy, and Law. The students who participated in the session are interested in law, law enforcement, agencies such as the FBI and CIA, and politics, said their law teacher, Jamie Bisset, the head of the academy.
The program, Melnick said, lets students and attorneys discuss law-related issues and allows the association to better understand students’ perspectives and thoughts.
“You’re part of the process of putting together the law in our society,” Melnick told the Northwood students.
The three county lawyers led a presentation on the case.
“One of the big ideas here is to get the emotion out of it and to allow them to think about something analytically,” Melnick said.
McCarthy, as defense attorney, and Turner, as prosecutor, delivered spirited opening statements to show students how each side would first address the jury with what they think the evidence will show.
Turner showed students a photo of Martin and said Zimmerman’s reasons for finding Martin suspicious were not justified. Zimmerman had not listened to the 911 operator’s request to not follow Martin, resulting in the confrontation that followed, Turner said.
McCarthy countered that his client was a neighborhood watchman who cared about his community, was in fear for his life during the confrontation and had voluntarily gone to police to help their investigation.
Following the statements, the presenters discussed Florida’s “stand your ground” self-defense law, which arose during the case but was not used in the defense’s argument.
The local attorneys compared the Florida law to Maryland’s self-defense law, which requires an individual to try to retreat before using justifiable deadly force against an attacker.
The presenters also discussed how the defense and the prosecution would approach their arguments in different ways based on what evidence favors their argument.
When one student asked McCarthy for his personal thoughts about the actual case, he said he thought the prosecution hurt its case by calling two witnesses who ended up supporting the defense’s argument.
Students broke into groups to determine their verdict. Most students ruled Zimmerman was not guilty, though a fair number said they would find him guilty.
Elise Rose, 17, a Northwood senior — and judge of the mock courtroom — said she learned information during the presentation that she thought portrayed the case differently than she had seen it in the media.
She said she was out of the country when the case was unfolding.
“I never got into the nitty-gritty details before,” she said.
After discussing with her peers what the verdict should be, Elise said, she heard some people who went with their “gut feelings. She said she realized it’s difficult to be unbiased.
Lisa Benitez-Basilio, 15, a sophomore, said the presentation helped her better understand facts of the case and details such as how Zimmerman was injured.
She said she didn’t know there was a difference between Florida’s and Maryland’s self-defense laws.
Bisset said her students returned from summer break with questions about the case. She postponed the discussion, however, until students could discuss it with the county lawyers.
Monday’s presentation, she said, offered the students clarity about the law related to the case and let them see “real attorneys in action.”
Bisset said she hopes the students “understand we can’t decide things just on our passions, that we really have to look at the letter of the law.”
McCarthy, a former teacher, said he visits classrooms a couple dozen times each year. He said the students were engaged and asked good questions.
“I think what it did, and what I hoped it would do, it challenged some preconceptions, both ways, about this particular case and made them focus on the real facts and the difficulty of applying law to a real situation,” he said.