January 24, 2014

Mock Trial uses fake case to build real skills; Modesto High team triumphs

Modesto High triumphs as Mock Trial puts teens through their paces in courtroom drama over death, drugs and constitutional limits on searches.

The case had juice: death, drugs, disabilities, privacy rights, teen rivalries. Add in theories of being stalked by an overzealous cop, framed by a friend or targeted by a zero-tolerance principal, and you have Mock Trial 2014, a courtroom contest of wits and wiles for high school students.

“It’s a true collaboration of schools and the legal profession. Students get to roll up their sleeves and find out what it’s like,” said Modesto attorney Dave Gianelli.

Modesto High will be the winner listed on the Stanislaus County permanent trophy this year, topping a packed field of nine teams from Modesto and Turlock. Downey High took runner-up honors. Henna Hundal of Turlock High, who is a member of The Modesto Bee’s Teens in the Newsroom program – was named winning journalist covering the events. Ramiro Zavala of Johansen High was singled out as top artist in the courtroom for his sketches.

Teens – 172 of them – tested their mettle through three grueling court battles on the same fictitious case, a high school student accused of selling drugs that contributed to a classmate’s death. The case, decided by judges and not juries, included arguing whether a police officer climbing on a car to see in the front window constituted an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment.

For the contest, organized by the Stanislaus County Office of Education, nine Superior Court judges and more than 60 attorneys volunteered their time to build the next generation’s understanding of law and the legal system.

In Judge Marie Silveira’s courtroom, passionate closing arguments by Downey defense attorney Elizabeth Kreiger that her client was “the victim of a search for retribution” and a “sacrificial lamb” failed to sway the court. Silveira found the defendant innocent of murder but guilty of selling drugs.

Johansen High prosecutors introduced all the key case elements without objection by Downey’s defense team, Silveira noted, saying, “They were getting away with murder.” That said, the judge praised the witnesses as better prepared and on point than many she sees in real life.

Family Court Judge Robert Westbrook, talking to teens before opening arguments, said nervousness was normal and perseverance essential. As a public defender, Westbrook said, “You come to court every day and you find a brick wall.” After losing a case, he said, “the next day you get back up again and do it again.”

In his fourth year on the Turlock High team, defense attorney Jonas Trevethan focused on the points, not the verdict. “The third night’s the easiest because you’ve done it twice before, and at the same time the hardest, because it all depends on this night,” he said, while waiting to hear how his team fared.

For mom Nona Baptist, the skills students build mean the most. “He’s learned a lot of really good speaking skills,” she said of her son, Brandon Baptist. Brandon, in his third year on the Johansen team, agreed. “I learned how to talk in public and associate with people, and an understanding of the legal system,” he said.

“They gain confidence, quick-thinking skills, friendships, teamwork,” said Brandi Anderson. Her daughter, Jillian Anderson, is considering going into law after her time on the Gregori High team.

On the Beyer team, senior Elizabeth Jenkins said she went out on a limb her freshman year in joining the team, but found her choice molded her high school career. “All the school leaders were in it. They really influenced me,” she said.

Yet amid all the serious skills and hard work, teens found ways to have fun. Beyer High prosecution witness A.J. Rea said he memorized the fictitious case facts, but then filled in his own details to bedevil the defense team.

“It was really fun seeing what answers I could come up with, making random stuff up,” he said.

The case, concocted by the Constitutional Rights Foundation, next takes Modesto High’s legal eagles to San Jose for the state competition March 21-23.

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