Three Students’ View of the Contra Costa County High School Mock Trial Program

While most teenagers do their best to avoid the courtroom, the 19 members of the California High School Mock Trial team looked forward to their every opportunity to stand before a judge.

After winning the Contra Costa County Mock Trial Competition with an undefeated record, the Cal High team placed sixth in the statewide championship in March to top off its most successful year in more than a decade.

But this success did not come easily. We spent more than six months preparing, with countless hours practicing objections, studying case law and memorizing witness statements all with the knowledge we would need perfection in courtroom.

Mock Trial County Finals 2011

This year, teams competing in the Mock Trial Program, sponsored by the Constitutional Rights Foundation, argued the fictitious case of People v. Woodson, in which the defendant was charged with committing assault and violating an anti-bullying statute.

Each team had both a prosecution and a defense, with students playing the roles of attorneys, witnesses, clerks, and bailiffs, which would compete against another team in front of real attorneys and judges.

It is this added component of being scored by professionals in the field of law that makes mock trial a learning experience rather than simply a competition.

The judges and attorneys have heard authentic testimonies, questioned actual witnesses, and ruled on real cases, so their benchmarks of judgment are their real-life experiences. This adds to the pressure we feel while competing, but it also provides us a source of practical advice which helps us to improve.

The scorers did more than just give us tips on how to approach the facts of the case. They also provided general advice on presentation skills applicable outside the courtroom.

Mock Trial drawing by the County winning courtroom artist, Emily Neilson

For the first two rounds of actual competition, the scorers held onto the same mantra: speak clearly and speak slowly. They stressed that even in real court cases with jurors, the way the facts are presented is often just as, if not more, important than the facts themselves.

Our team’s three speaking awards from the county for outstanding opening and closing arguments speak for themselves, literally, as to the adjustments we made to fit the scorers’ advice.

Though attorneys in mock trial receive much of the glory for the oral arguments and questioning, the witnesses, from the police officer first on-scene to the close friend of the victim, are equally important.

Witnesses bring another skill set to the courtroom entirely. Being up on the stand tests their ability to reason and react to cleverly worded questions, while ensuring that they do not hurt their credibility or the team’s case.

Since we try our case in front of real judges and attorneys, it becomes imperative, especially in the case of witnesses, to be as realistic as possible in our presentation.

It was the realistic nature with which we conducted ourselves that won us numerous individual awards, proving that our hard work and the numerous hours spent working with our attorney-coaches, Ellen Rosenbluth and Catherine Woodward, and teacher-coach, Brian Barr, had paid off.

The verdict is in, and there is no reasonable doubt that the Cal High mock trial team has proven itself guilty of greatness.

But these individual awards and the county first place trophy are not as valuable as the skills and knowledge we are taking away from this year of mock trial.

At the state competition, our third trial in a single day lasted almost four torturous hours because of a stubborn judge. Afterwards, the judge told us that if we could go through that trial, we could do anything. We don’t entirely disagree.

Mock Trial Group 2011

Granted, performing in a mock trial does not require extreme physical exertion. But heatedly arguing objections, testifying on the stand, and scrambling to improvise leaves participants—and the emotionally-involved spectators known as our parents—mentally and physically exhausted.

No two trials, even for the same case of People v. Woodson, are ever the same. Every team prepares a different case theme, every witness and attorney has individual strengths and weaknesses, and every judge makes unique rulings on objections. Walking into the courtroom you must be prepared for anything.

In the end, however, despite the stress of competition and the free time lost to studying the case or performing, the excitement and satisfaction of trying a case in a courthouse before a real judge outweighs the negatives.

Mock trial, with its emphasis on learning from experience in the courtroom and developing skills at the assistance of practicing law professionals, has been a cherished activity that we will miss after high school.

The verdict is in, and there is no reasonable doubt that the Cal High mock trial team has proven itself guilty of greatness.

We’ll gladly face our sentence.

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