MODESTO — Attorneys for both sides struggle with legal wording, strategize objections and repeatedly rephrase witness questions. The verdict hangs on them getting it right, whether or not they win the case today.
Fortunately for the defendant, the criminal charges won't stick once the Mock Trial State Competition winds up Sunday in Riverside. The fictional mayor's daughter, by appearances guilty of driving over a bicyclist, will be free to go.
But will it be justice for Modesto High School's hardworking team? Win or lose, advising attorney Kirk McCallister said, these students have a promising road ahead.
"These kids are very dedicated," he said, watching the 25-member team practicing cross-examination for the umpteenth time.
"This really makes them think on their feet. These are kids who are bright, but their national comfort level is not getting up in front of everybody," McCallister said. "We watch them bloom."
Attorney Jared Beeson, in his 12th year as a Mock Trial coach, explained rulings during the practice, offering alternatives and strategic ways to phrase questions.
"For me, the toughest challenge is teaching the students to argue objections," Beeson said. "One of the most exciting parts of Mock Trial comes when one student attorney raises an objection and the judge turns to the opposing student attorney and says 'Your response, counsel?' " he said. If both students really get the rules of evidence, the answers are impressive, he said.
He, McCallister and Kenneth Hara are the Modesto High team's legal mentors.
Junior Reza Talieh said time spent analyzing trial minutia made her appreciate the U.S. legal system more. "I think if anything it's glamorized it. My opinion's gone up, to see the interplay where the other side pokes as many holes in our theories as they can," she said.
Television dramas? The real even pseudo-real thing is "way more exciting," said sophomore Mackenzie O'Dell.
Modesto High teacher Kerry Castellani, the team adviser, said the students are geared up for today's contest and "incredibly thankful" for the time of their three attorney coaches.
Of interest to teens
The Mock Trial competition includes a case each year meant to trigger teen interest. This year's involves a young driver. The structure offers an engaging way to teach civic lessons, build legal understanding, and enhance logic and speaking skills.
"They don't have to research all of law," Castellani said. But they do have to construct arguments, track side issues raised during testimony and try to keep a step ahead of the competition. The contest provides core case facts and roles. All names are gender-neutral, so any student can play the part, Castellani said.
Playing the hit-and-run victim, Catherina Tan blasted a lawyer whose cross-examination questions strayed off script. Tan said she enjoys the acting part of her role. "I never even imagined being in Mock Trial. Now, going to state, it's kind of surreal," she said.
Kiowa Nicholson relished her time being grilled on the stand. "It's fun every time," she said. While factual questions are required to be answered precisely, all else is fair game and a chance to make the other team look bad, Nicholson said.
"Sometimes, we get thrown a curveball. Sometimes, it can be really hard. But somehow we always make it through it because they make us learn our part really well," she said.
Kiowa said she's leaning toward a career in psychology. But several others said they're considering legal careers after time spent in the trumped-up trial's reality.
Nana Bekoe Sakyi Jr. said he liked being on the defense side best. "I'm not the type that wants to get people in trouble. I'd want to give someone a second chance," he said.
McCallister said working with tomorrow's potential litigators is eye-opening. "It's a lot of fun, a lot of time," he stressed.
"Teaching makes you go back to the basics, and that's good for anybody," he said. But, he added, there's a wider picture.
"The whole Mock Trial thing has become part of the legal culture. It's really a big deal," McCallister said.
AT A GLANCE
WHAT: Modesto High is one of 32 teams competing in the state competition today through Sunday in the California Mock Trial 2013. Four rounds today and Saturday will enact the same trial one team plays the prosecution, one the defense, each with their own witnesses. Points are given for showing legal prowess; a team can lose the case, but still win the round.
WHERE: Riverside Auditorium and Riverside Hall of Justice, Riverside. The Championship Trial will be from 9 to 11:30 a.m. Sunday at the Riverside Historic Courthouse in Riverside.
THE CASE: People v. Vega is the fictitious felony hit-and-run trial of Adrian Vega, a prominent resident of Hidden Valley and child of the city's mayor. The prosecution alleges that Vega blew through a stop sign while texting and hit a bicyclist, then fled the scene. Vega claims she wasn't the driver.
Video from the Modesto High mock trial practice: