Thursday, January 10, 2002

Cape mock trial team loses close competition

Published in the Current

The Cape Elizabeth mock trial team barely missed beating Hampden Academy at the statewide high school mock trial competition in Portland Saturday. After a pair of closely argued trials, the judges couldn’t decide who had won.

They discussed the possibility of a tie, but decided that couldn’t happen. There was no precedent for a tie in the mock trial finals, or anywhere else in the competition.

So the three judges—Leigh Saufley, Maine’s new Chief Justice, Colleen Khoury, the dean of the University of Maine Law School, and Elizabeth Scheffee, president
of the Maine Bar Association— voted again. Cape was not the winner.

It was Cape’s second appearance at the finals in three years, and the competition is set up to be as real to life as possible.

“We present in a real courtroom in front of practicing judges,” said Dan Gayer, a senior on the team.

They use real rules of evidence and actual trial procedure, too, though some of the most complex legal guidelines are left out, to make things a little simpler and keep the trials moving.

The competition season begins in September, when packets of case information go out to participating schools around the state. They all work on the same case, which is fictitious, but includes evidence from witnesses, police reports, and expert testimony. Students prepare for a couple of months, and trials begin in November.

Each team has to present both sides of the case, taking turns with the roles of defense and prosecution, including playing all the witnesses who will testify.

The competition is based not only on whether a team proves its side, but how well they present it. Is it well-argued, with minimal straying from the point? Are witnesses convincing and are cross-examinations revealing? Do experts really know what they are talking about? How do witnesses and attorneys alike handle tough questions or answers?

The students get help from Cape mock trial adviser and theater teacher Dick Mullen, as well as local lawyers, often parents of students on the team. They are taught the academics of trial law, as well as how to exploit the emotional nature of a case.

“It’s very academic,” Mullen said. The practices are rigorous, with tips from the real lawyers on appropriate handling of objections.

Mullen encourages the students to use body language and sound like they mean what they say.

Team member Stephanie Reed was not especially interested in the law until Mullen approached her to be on the team. Now she says she considers law one career possibility, though she hasn’t decided what she’ll do just yet.

The students miss school to attend competitions, and sacrifice long hours to prepare for the cases.

But, Gayer said, it helps them understand why the U.S. legal system is set up the way it is, with its flaws and all.

“You learn a lot about how the legal process works,” Reed said.