Students parse law in mock trial cases
First, it all seemed like a big misunderstanding: Someone else logged in using his former ID and password! It wasn’t him! All he’d wanted to do was some legitimate academic research!
Innocent until proven guilty, of course.
Under cross-examination, though, what had seemed black-and-white became somewhat grayer: He had teased his accuser in the past, though they’d been friends in elementary school. His chat room demeanor was often aggressive. He’d had unsupervised access to school computers.
Kris Stuart, the defendant, looked expectantly at the attorney.
“Why did the friendship (with the plaintiff) end?” the attorney asked.
“Objection,” said Bettina Bostelman, a junior at Grand Junction High School. “Relevance.”
And with that, the mystified, defensive demeanor lifted and Kris Stuart was back to being Sean Harmon, a Grand Junction senior. The courtroom was once again Mark Carris’ social studies classroom, and the mock trial team was wading into a discussion about how to address questions of relevance. They eventually decided that sophomore Jake Madsen, who was acting as both defense and plaintiff attorneys, should say, “In your opinion, why did the friendship end?”
They were in the final preparations for the Western Slope regional tournament in the 26th annual Colorado Bar Association High School Mock Trial Program, taking place today and Saturday at the Mesa County Justice Center. Teams from around the area will compete in Jamie Cullen v. Kris Stuart, a civil case focusing on cyberstalking.
The case was issued to teams Nov. 1, providing a trial’s-worth of materials in which the fictional Cullen accuses Stuart of making threats in a school-sponsored chat room, allegedly exacerbating Cullen’s Generalized Anxiety Disorder and leading to the loss of a $60,000 valedictorian scholarship.
Teams prepare both sides of the case, but present just one side at a time against a competing team. They’re judged by a panel of attorneys on their organization, delivery, statement of facts, objections and examination in opening statements and closing arguments, direct and cross examinations and witness portrayal.
Winning teams advance to the state tournament March 11 and 12, and then to nationals May 5 through 7 in Phoenix. The Glenwood Springs High School mock trial teams consistently have swept regionals and state and advanced to nationals. They’re the gold standard, said Carris, who has coached the Grand Junction team for 11 years.
“We’ve always aspired to beat Glenwood,” Carris said, adding they’ve come close in previous years. Last year, the GJHS team initially tied for second place against Glenwood’s C team, but lost in a final decision.
“This competition is our chance to get even with them,” said senior Paul Harmon, an aspiring attorney who admitted that beating Glenwood has been one of his motivations for participating in mock trial all four years of high school. “I think it’ll take a lot, but I think that they are beatable, just like any high school group of kids. I think we have a very good team as well. I think we’ve got a couple of kinks in our trial that we’re going to throw at them, a couple little curve balls they’re not going to be expecting.
“Ultimately, you have to be able to have a well-rounded team, because they do everything well. I could go one-in-four in the trial if that one win was against Glenwood A (team).”
To that end, the GJHS team has practiced since receiving the case, and even before, reviewing the rules of evidence as early as September. In a school with many other academic extracurriculars that can siphon potential members from the mock trial team, those who commit are dedicated, said Harmon, who co-directs the team. Paul and his twin brother, Sean, are the team’s only four-year members.
Through the years, local attorneys have helped the team prepare, Carris said, but ultimately it’s the students who consistently attend after-school practices, parsing the nuances of civil case law and mining the psychology of a trial, who win competitions.
At a recent practice, they clarified differences between MRIs and FMRIs — “An FMRI does detect brain chemistry,” senior Spencer Pendry, a first-year team member, asserted (Jamie Cullen’s medication is a possible factor in the case) — and crack open a dictionary to assess layers of meaning in the word “verdict.”
“Hold on,” Miranda Dvorak told fellow senior Haleigh Jacobson at one point. “Have you asked a question? Right now, you’re just making statements.”
Jacobson had been acting as defense attorney, cross-examining Bostelman. They reminded each other to keep emotions in check, to cut off all avenues of wiggle room, to be careful about turning their backs to the judge. Paul Harmon demonstrated the subtle art of asking a question of the witness, but facing the jury while doing so.
“What matters,” Madsen said, giving the opening statement of a defense attorney but summarizing a key lesson of the mock trial program, “is the truth.”