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September|October 2003
Mock Trial's Big Dance By Brian Montopoli
Pete Rose's Mock Trial By Joshua David Mann
Sue Yourself By Dashka Slater
To Be Continued By Sam Goodstein
No Boundaries By Tyler Maroney
The Prudent Jurist By Susan Koniak
Cases & Controversies

Mock Trial's Big Dance

By Brian Montopoli

THE 20TH NATIONAL HIGH SCHOOL MOCK TRIAL CHAMPIONSHIP was held this spring in New Orleans, and even the social event that kicked off the tournament had an air of the adversarial. "No team has worked as hard as we have to get here," said Drew Johnson of South Dade Senior High School outside Miami, as students around him nibbled on chicken wings. "We've done six days a week, on average about six or seven hours per day. It's hard, your grades suffer, but if you're committed, you do it." Johnson, who had a crew cut, said his team had wanted to practice every day, but school policy kept them from meeting with their coach on Sundays.

Forty-four teams, representing 42 states and the Northern Mariana Islands, were at this year's tournament. Many of the teams had triumphed over hundreds of competitors at the state level to qualify for the championship, and most of the kids spent their winter and spring breaks practicing. In addition to reaching for the glory of being crowned the best team in the country, there was a tradition of great championship play to live up to. At the 1994 nationals, for example, the team from Southern California's Arlington High School ate some bad hamburgers the night before they were set to try a case; the next day, even as food poisoning caused one member of the team to vomit in the courtroom, the Arlington kids refused to stop competing. They went home national champions.

This year, the team everyone had their eye on was Family Christian Academy of Homeschoolers from Chattanooga, Tenn., the defending champs. Three of the six members of the FCA team came from the Downer family: twins Joshua and Anna, both 16 years old, and their older brother Matthew, aged 18. Their mother Susy, a soft-spoken former attorney who together with her husband founded an evangelical Christian ministry in Chattanooga, also made the trip to New Orleans. This fall, thanks in part to his success at last year's mock trial championship, Matthew is attending Harvard, but until now, none of the Downer children had ever gone to a traditional school.

FCA was the only home-schooled team at this year's nationals, which bothered some of their rivals. "They can spend all the time they want prepping," said one opposing student, who didn't want to be identified. "They don't have to worry about math or science if they don't want to." Jeff Atherton, a 42-year-old Chattanooga attorney and the FCA team leader, said that, if anything, home schooling hobbles his team. "The [public] schools won't even let us onto their property," he said. "We have to meet at a religious hospital. Some of these kids come from 45 minutes or an hour away just to get to practice."

The drive from Chattanooga to New Orleans is about eight hours, but about 25 FCA supporters accompanied the team to the tournament. As the team prepared for its first round matchup with a confident-looking group from Lincoln High School of Portland, Ore., the gallery of the New Orleans Civil District Courtroom filled up quickly. The FCA practice team, a dozen kids who help the competition team prepare, crowded into the back, and Susy Downer set up a video camera so that the team could later critique its performance. Frances Randolph, the mom of one of the non-Downers on the team, sat in the front row, pulled out a half-completed blanket, and promptly began crocheting. Outside the courtroom, the FCA team gathered in a circle to pray, as they do before each competition. His head bowed, Jeff Atherton recited the team verse, from Proverbs: "The horse prepares for the day of battle, but victory is of the Lord."

THE MOCK TRIAL CHAMPIONSHIP BEGAN IN 1984, with a regional competition that included five Midwestern states; by 1988, more than 20 states had gotten involved. Dee Runaas, the national competition's archivist, estimates that more than 80,000 kids take part in high school mock trial competitions each year.

Trials typically run about two-and-a-half hours, with students acting as both lawyers and witnesses in an imaginary case. As a trial proceeds, real attorneys and judges score the students in a variety of categories, including their opening and closing statements, direct and cross-examinations (including the use of formal objections and rebuttals), and witness performance. The presiding judge tries to keep the proceedings as close to reality as possible. There is no court stenographer, but that does not discourage mock trialers from occasionally requesting that comments be stricken from the record. Tactics can be surprisingly sophisticated: Teams routinely level charges early in a trial and then rely on those charges in their arguments and their questions to witnesses as the trial proceeds.

At the national championship, there are four rounds leading up to the finals, and losing even one trial can be enough to knock a team out of contention. In each round of this year's tournament, students tried the case of Catherine Doucet v. the Louisiana School Board, O. K. Allen, and Earl Long. At issue was the election of the student council president at a fictitious Louisiana high school where a ballot-counting scandal propelled a student called Earl Long into office. Catherine Doucet originally won the election, but that decision was overturned when the principal disallowed 27 absentee ballots he said were improperly perforated—that is, their chads were hanging. Echoes of the 2000 presidential campaign were strictly intentional.

Like all mock trial cases, the Doucet case was written to give both sides a fair shot at winning. In the first round, FCA drew the defense side, and Lincoln High, the plaintiff, was asked to call the first witness. Most teams have kids who specialize in either lawyering or witnessing: The more assertive team members usually end up as the attorneys, while those with acting ability gravitate toward the witness stand. After both teams had made their opening statements, one of Lincoln's attorneys, clad in a charcoal suit with white pinstripes and dark leather shoes, called the plaintiff Catherine Doucet, who was being played by a soft-spoken teammate, Maura Kaminash.

This year's case rested largely on the credibility of the two candidates for the student council presidency, and the doe-eyed Maura made Catherine Doucet look incorruptible. Witnesses are given some license to improvise, but they must stick to the facts laid out in their sworn affidavits, which are part of the background materials provided to the teams before trial. Maura skillfully fielded questions about her credibility. Her success with absentee voters—suspiciously, they had gone 193-7 in her favor—was a matter of good old-fashioned get-out-the-vote ingenuity, she said with a guileless smile. "No further questions at this time," said the lawyer from Lincoln.

FCA's attorney, in a black suit, her hair tied back in a bun, stood up. "My name is Beth Coleman and I'm going to be asking you some questions today," she said, the faintest hint of impatience in her voice as she strode around the defense table. Quickly, Beth had Maura backpedaling: No, she didn't think the absentee ballot situation was suspicious, and yes, well, she had made up campaign fliers that looked like money but she wasn't trying to imply that she was willing to buy votes. Maura had been composed on direct examination, but she began to sound slightly rattled. According to Bob Noel, the director of this year's national competition, "a good witness needs three things: a knowledge of the facts, the ability to be in character, and a tendency to not be too aggressive or too defensive. What kills witnesses is snapping back or being arrogant or unresponsive—they have to maintain their poise."

But, Lincoln wasn't out of weapons. The school's next attorney stood up to reveal that she was on crutches, a detail that worried Joshua Downer, FCA's defense counsel in the next round of questioning. After the game-legged attorney performed her direct examination, Joshua made sure to help her back into her seat—out of good will, he said, but also to mitigate what he called "the crutches factor."

FCA's witnesses were equally shrewd. Anna Downer and her teammate Amber Gruber poured on the Southern charm, suggesting that they, like their characters, were incapable of any wrongdoing. Amber, playing Earl Long, expertly exaggerated her Southern drawl, and deflected insinuations of the lawyer from Lincoln that her side had tampered with the voting machines. Tyler Randolph, in a subtle touch, put on a pair of spectacles to make him more convincing in the role of Louisiana's deputy commissioner of elections, a 15-year veteran of the commission, according to the case materials. All three were composed and sympathetic, and the Lincoln attorneys couldn't get them to contradict their sworn statements or snap back at an antagonistic question. Tennessee's witnesses "knew which battles to fight on cross, and when to make concessions," said Andy McVey, a Wilmington, N.C., attorney and former mock trial coach who is on the competition's board of directors.

After the closing statements, the presiding judge congratulated the teams. Spectators in the gallery hadn't had a good angle during the trial, so Joshua reprised his performance for the FCA supporters who had brought their cameras. His cheerful face once again became stern, and he made a sweeping, portentous gesture toward the witness box.

The results of each round are kept secret until after the competition, to keep losing teams from getting discouraged, so the FCA team members, while confident, were not certain they had won. They gathered their materials, said a quick prayer, and went to get lunch in the food court of a nearby mall.

IN THE THIRD ROUND, THE FCA HOMESCHOOLERS faced a strong squad from Iowa, but Beth Coleman got one of their witnesses to admit that her testimony contradicted her written statement, leaving the witness struggling to hold back very real tears. In their fourth trial, FCA went up against a team of otherwise eloquent Minnesotans who tried to affect a Bayou twang, a little piece of method acting that was short on Creole and long on Fargo.

When the tournament's four rounds were completed, the FCA team was pleased with their performance but typically self-effacing. "We'd love to be there, but if it doesn't happen—if the Lord has other plans for us—that's OK too," said Jeff Atherton as the teams gathered on the second floor of the Hyatt Hotel to await the announcement of who would be in the finals. As the competition's overseers deliberated, the teams grew increasingly unruly, calling impatiently for the results. The FCA team, meanwhile, found a quiet stairwell away from the crowd, where they went over their recent performance. When at last Bob Noel emerged to announce the two finalists, some 300 teenagers perceptibly leaned forward.

The announcement was short: Tennessee and an exuberant bunch from Glenwood Springs High School in Colorado had made it. The teams were instructed to head toward the Louisiana Supreme Court building, where Pascal Calogero, the state's chief justice, would preside over the final round of competition. "I'm surprised and thankful and speechless," said Beth Coleman, looking around for the Colorado team. "And I want to beat them."

In the final round, FCA again drew the defense. The Colorado team ably used its opening statement to introduce the charges on which it planned to base its arguments, asserting that Long, Allen, and the school board committed fraud by manipulating the election, defaming Doucet in the process. Joshua Downer, tapped to deliver Tennessee's opening, took a deep breath and began his argument that the facts of the case didn't support Colorado's charges. "You can't fit a square peg in a round hole," he said, his words echoing through the chamber. "The peg simply won't fit."

Colorado was as strong a team as Tennessee had faced—its members were measured in their answers and poised in front of the judges—and going into the closing statement, McVey, one of the scoring judges, had the teams dead even.

Matthew Downer stood up to deliver his closing statement, bringing his younger brother's argument full circle. "When you don't have the law," he said, "you pound the facts. And when you don't have the facts you pound the law. If you don't have either, you pound the table. And that's what you've been seeing from the plaintiff all day long. But no matter how hard they pound, the peg still doesn't fit." He stressed each word in the last sentence separately, his gaze leveled on the seven attorneys and judges who would decide the 2003 champion. Of Matthew's statement, McVey later said, "I've never seen anything like it."

Still, at the tournament banquet that evening, before the judges revealed the winner, no one was quite sure which side would emerge victorious. "When you have judges evaluating performance, it's a lot like evaluating figure skating—it's very subjective," said Victor Zerbi, the coach of the Colorado team and a recently retired county court judge. Chief Justice Calogero was equally impressed with both teams. "I've seen lawyers with 10 years of training that were not as confident," he said.

The teams finished their chicken and crab croquette dinner, and Bob Noel walked up to the podium. He had ten envelopes in his hand, each one containing the name of one of the top 10 teams. He started with the 10th-place team, from Kentucky, and counted down to the third-place team, from Indiana. As he prepared to reveal the second-place team, the room fell silent. It was Colorado. Chattanooga's team had become the first ever to repeat as national champions.

Brian Montopoli, a writer living in Washington, D.C., last wrote for Legal Affairs about the capital's presidential primary.

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