Mock Trial prosecution attorneys (from left) sophomore Natalie Kaliss, senior Jeremy Varon, senior Daffany chan,and senior Emma Olswing prepare for their murder trial during a preliminary round against the School of the Arts Academy on Feb. 21. Photo courtesy of Doris Cheung
The crime was murder! Now it is up to 18 Lowell students to dig out the truth and take the case to court.
On Feb. 23, for the first time in five years, Lowell’s Mock Trial team won the regional Constitutional Rights Foundation Mock Trial Competition, which is sponsored by the Bar Association of San Francisco. There were three preliminary matches before the finals. The team argued fiercely in the final round against the School of the Arts’, and the Cardinals emerged victorious. The team will be heading to Sacramento for the State Competition on March 23-25; they will compete against the winning teams from 32 other counties for a place at Nationals.
In September, each team is presented with an invented court case, along with evidence, including witness statements, case facts, and exhibits that they can use to argue their case. Then they have until February to prepare for the competition. According to junior Yelena Gankin, this year’s case revolved around a mysterious murder involving one friend who stood to lose $20 million if his or her (the characters are gender neutral) best friend turned him/her in for plagiarism — then the best friend showed up dead.
To start the process, students audition for the roles of attorney, witness, timekeeper or bailiff. After being accepted, the team is divided into two groups: prosecution and defense. Although they are technically one team and practice together, they compete in different rounds. “It allows students to work individually and develop their own skills,” Gankin said. The team’s victory was a hard-fought struggle against the defending champions.“I think the pre-trial helped us win,” sophomore Isabel Boutiette, also a reporter for The Lowell, said. “The judge was being very hard on our teammate and was constantly questioning her, but she handled it really well.”
And even though students have individual responsibilities, they still need to collaborate. “I like it because it involves teamwork,” senior Sophia Rosenmoss said. “Every attorney, witness, timekeeper and bailiff brings something special to the team.”
According to Gankin, there are three adult judges, usually attorneys, who score all components on a scale from 1 to 5. The categories include pre-trial, opening statements, direct examinations, cross-examinations, closing arguments, witness performances, bailiff/timekeeper performance and team participation.
However, certain aspects are weighed more heavily than others. For example, pre-trial gets a score from 1 to 5, but this score is multiplied by three while closing arguments are multiplied by two. For the final competition the system of scoring is the same but there are five judges.
The team meets for two hours every Wednesday at a downtown law firm called Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger where the team receives coaching from actual attorneys. The head coach of the team is Doris Cheng, a lawyer specializing in personal injury who is also a Lowell alumna and current teacher of trial advocacy to judges, attorneys and law students around the country and internationally. “These Lowell students are unquestionably some of the brightest young minds in the country — they are self-motivated, hard-working and intelligent,” Cheng said. “But most importantly, they are honest and kind-hearted. These characteristics are critical to developing a cadre of ethical and zealous professionals who will change the world.”
Being on the Mock Trial team definitely helps those who want to become lawyers. “Our program is based upon the type of advocacy training program that is utilized around the world by trial judges and lawyers,” said Cheng. “The Mock Trial students argue motions and try the case before real judges and legal giants — the successes and failures under these conditions are just like actual trial conditions.” Mock Trial not only teaches students about law, but also gives them a chance to improve other skills. “I have learned so much about law and public speaking,” Rosenmoss said. “Before I joined the team, I didn’t want to go into law, but now I want to become a lawyer. It has opened many doors for me.”
The Lowell team’s individuality and distinctive style distinguished them from other teams. “Other schools tend to be pretty uniform, but we really try to keep this fun and add little touches that reveal our personalities,” Gankin said.