By Dave Rogers
---- — NEWBURYPORT — The courtroom was real, the court officers and judge too, but the defendant, Suzie Smith, wasn’t.
Rather, she was a Triton Middle School student portraying a fictional 21-year-old woman who hosted her own birthday party where alcohol got into the hands of minors with almost tragic results. As a result, Suzie was charged with procuring alcohol to persons under 21 and yesterday her case was heard inside Newburyport District Court, the culmination of the lengthy 21st Century Community Learning Centers Mock Trial after-school program.
About a dozen middle school students split up into one of three teams: the prosecution, the defense and witnesses. A jury of 12 composed of school officials, teachers and other members of the school community listened to both sides as Judge Peter Doyle presided over the proceedings. Aiding both sides during the after-school class were attorneys Charles Rotundi and Nicole Reilly.
To celebrate her 21st birthday, Smith, played by Alexa Reilly, “bought” a case of beer and a bottle of vodka for her guests. Her younger sister was assigned designated driver and tasked to make sure minors couldn’t get their hands on alcohol. But apparently all of Smith’s good intentions failed when police arrived after receiving a complaint about a loud party and caught at least two minors drinking. Another party guest left the house drunk and smashed his car into a pole. The all-too-true story was relayed to the jury by prosecutors Caroline Hazelton, Hannah Reilly, Jacob Gabrian and Emily Reilly.
The defense team of Dayna Rybicki, Liam Gay-Killeen, Ryan Farrell, Owen Heffernan and Noelle Indingaro asked questions of the police officers, performed by students Molly Gagnon and Thomas Cunningham, hoping to disprove their testimony. Portraying witnesses for the defense were Isabella St. Arneault and Kyle Wheeler. Aiding both sides during the after-school class were attorneys Charles Rotundi and Nicole Reilly.
The mock trial began when Alexa Reilly’s father, Newbury police Chief Michael Reilly, led her into the courtroom wearing a pair of her father’s handcuffs. Court officers then announced Doyle’s arrival and asked everyone to stand. Afterward, court officers swore in all witnesses, all according to rules and procedures conducted each day for real inside the courthouse.
After the roughly 50-minute trial, the jury came back to the courtroom and announced to the judge that they were unable to reach a unanimous decision: a hung jury. Doyle declared a mistrial and then asked the prosecution if they wanted to pursue a second trial. The prosecution quickly and loudly declined, drawing a large laugh from the crowd of parents, educators and the curious filling Courtroom 3.
During a reception held afterward outside the courtroom, jury foreman Paul Lees said nine jurors voted for conviction while three others weren’t convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of Smith’s guilt.
Triton Regional School District Assistant Superintendent Brian Forget, who also served on the jury, praised the hard work of his students, calling it a great learning experience.
“I think it was fabulous,” Forget said.
Indingaro said being one of the last to stand up and go before the judge and jury was nerve-wracking.
“But once I started reading my part, I was fine,” Indingaro said.
Before the jury returned to announce their verdict, Doyle addressed the courtroom and said that no matter what the jury decided, Suzie Smith’s actions were not wise. He also stressed that the Essex County District Attorney’s Office was cracking down on social hosting and holding parents and others accountable.
“Suzie Smith did not exercise good judgment. Alcohol is always going to find itself in the wrong hands. The bottom line is this: just don’t do it,” Doyle said.
Michael Reilly applauded the “charge” picked by mock trial participants, calling it relevant and pertinent. He said many parents don’t realize the legal and civil peril they put themselves in by allowing parties to take place in their homes.
“They’re responsible,” Michael Reilly said.
Nicole Reilly, a Salisbury-based attorney married to Michael Reilly, said students were able to grasp the sometimes nebulous components that make up the law and the state statute that deals with procuring alcohol to minors. Furthermore, they were able to sift through the information and present credible arguments on both sides.
“I was really surprised that at that age, they got it. They really did a great job,” Nicole Reilly said, before the trial began.