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[whitespace] OK, it's not the ski club, but how many teenagers can successfully present the O.J. defense?

By Will Harper

TUESDAY, 6 p.m: On the fourth floor of the Hall of Justice, a trial is beginning in Department 27. The defendant is a college student named Chris Donovan. His alleged crime: Stealing a "Wrong Way--Do Not Enter" sign from a freeway on-ramp, resulting in the death of a trucker and two newlyweds.

From the assigned seating in the back of the courtroom, the legal spectacle seems to be business as usual. Upon closer inspection, something is different. The prosecutor turns around and reveals a mouthful of white enamel hidden by metal orthodontia. The defense lawyers have zits.

Same evening, on the fifth floor of the Hall of Justice, Department 31: A new trial is just beginning. The defendant is a college student named Chris Donovan. He's accused of stealing a "Wrong Way--Do Not Enter" sign from a freeway on-ramp, resulting in the death of a trucker and two newlyweds.

Sixth floor of the Hall of Justice, same night, same time. Another Chris Donovan accused of the same crime as the other Chris Donovans, in Department 36.

What's going on here? Cloning of scofflaws perpetrated by bored scientists seeking a sexier journal write-up than that yielded by the sheep genome project? It couldn't be. For one thing, all the Chris Donovans here have the same name and alleged crime but look totally different. And in each courtroom, Donovan has a different defense team facing off against a new prosecutorial ensemble.

Before we consult the Rod Serling anthology for an answer, there is a simple explanation.

It's Santa Clara County's 17th annual high school mock trial tournament sponsored by the Santa Clara County Office of Education, the local bar association and the Law Related Education Committee. Budding lawyers from 22 South Bay high schools are now competing for a chance to do their best Perry Mason in Sacramento next month at the state tournament.

Each high school team--with the assistance of real-life lawyers--must prepare both a prosecution and defense strategy to either convict or free Chris Donovan, a student from the fictitious college of Santa Elenora University.

There's not much room for improvisation. Most of the trial is scripted in advance, though the adolescent attorneys do get to chime in every once in a while with a dramatic "Objection, your honor."

It turns out that Donovan is a member of the so-called Forest Club, a group of students who steal and collect street signs. On July 11, 1997, Chris Donovan tells a few of his Forest Club compadres that he's missing a "Wrong Way--Do Not Enter" sign in his collection. Later, the missing street sign leads a trucker to collide with two newlyweds, killing all three.

Based on tips and other circumstantial evidence, police find the sign in Donovan's home and charge him with three counts of involuntary manslaughter.

A witness, a jogger named Randy Smith, can only say that she saw a tall and slender silhouette wearing a sweatshirt and jeans.

Nevertheless, prosecutor Leanne Nguyen from Eastside Union High School is confident that Donovan is the perpetrator. "He had the motive, the opportunity and the experience to commit this crime," Nguyen tells the court. (Her proud brother, Bao Nguyen, whispers, "My sister isn't usually the argumentative type at home. But she's good at it.")

The defense, however, isn't ready to plea bargain even though police found the sign in Donovan's home and no one can corroborate his whereabouts around the time of the crime.

All they need to do is raise a "reasonable doubt" as to their client's guilt.

The defense team from Willow Glen High School decides to employ a variation on the O.J. defense: Their client was framed by a rival in the Forest Club who stole the sign and planted it on Donovan's property. Willow Glen defense lawyer Megan New blames police for rushing to judgment. "Even though there are 19 members of the Forest Club, police only investigated Chris Donovan," she says.

Superior Court Judge Ray Davilla, having heard from both sides, retires to his chamber to decide who has made the stronger case. When he returns, a hush comes over the courtroom. "Not guilty on all counts," he announces.

"When I first looked at this case I thought this guy was toast," Davilla acknowledges. "But the way the evidence came in, I had a reasonable doubt."

Willow Glen junior Kristen Rovai, a John Grisham fan who plans to go to the law school at Santa Clara University, says she was confident from the start. "Oh yeah, we knew were going to win," she boasts. "The whole reasonable doubt thing [gives the defense an advantage]." O.J. would be proud.

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From the February 26-March 4, 1998 issue of Metro.

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