Proving Ground

Teenage attorneys, polished witnesses and real-life judges and lawyers star in Missouri’s high school mock trial season, now in full swing. Mock trial is a sport like no other, and opposing counsel’s opening statement means one thing: Game on.

The courthouse has been taken over.

By teenagers.

No, that’s not the tagline for a new episode of “Law & Order.” It’s the reality for courthouses across the state during high school mock trial season.

And while there are some clues that these aren’t your typical trials (Exhibit A: Flawless Justin Bieber hair), many of these kids are good enough to have you fooled.

The Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis sponsors the Missouri High School Mock Trial Competition each year. Volunteers craft a case, and BAMSL sets up more than 100 additional volunteers from the legal community to coach, judge and evaluate a series of matches culminating in the state championship. For many participants, it’s early grooming for future legal careers.

Over the past few months, teams have assigned roles, strategized and rehearsed, rehearsed, rehearsed as they worked through early rounds. St. Louis-area teams tend to dominate. If you win regionals in St. Louis this week, chances are you’ll take state later this month.

This year’s case, in short: Eighteen-year-old Brock Suzik is in it up-to-here after being charged with leaving the scene of an accident and second-degree murder for the death of a private-practice lawyer’s unborn child.

The student attorneys bring individual style when approaching Suzik’s predicament.

There’s the quietly determined:

“Permission to approach the bench?” says Cor Jesu Academy attorney Patricia Begari during a round one match against Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School.

And the no-nonsense:

“I just need a yes or no,” says Carnahan High School of the Future prosecuting attorney Deja Patrick on cross-exam. “Your honor, please instruct the witness to just answer my question.”

The prosecution’s first witness, a medical doctor, is a slight, soft-spoken girl with long, dishwater blond hair. Or a boy with an affected Russian accent and long, dark hair tied back in a ponytail, depending on which courtroom you’re in.

Coaches help students massage their strategies and grasp nitty-gritty legal points.

St. Louis County Circuit Judge David Lee Vincent III coaches teams from Normandy High and Marquette High School and is as likely to tell students they need a good haircut as a good cross-exam. He spent about four days this year putting together his teams’ not-so-secret weapon: a 41-page, color-coded playbook including “The Evidentiary INs and OUTs.” Red is for defense. Blue is for the plaintiff. The “INs and OUTs” cover how to object and respond to objections during competition. Other teams know about the playbook, and sometimes they ask to see it. They get a modified version.

Josh Jones, a lawyer in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, is the attorney coach for his mock trial alma mater, Kirkwood High School.

“A coach I had, he would make us memorize, via flashcard, the rules of evidence,” Jones says. “Once I got to evidence in law school, it really helped.”

If you’re skeptical about high school students’ enthusiasm for memorization and otherwise hard mental work after school hours, just ask the kids.

“I love this,” says Emily Gieszelmann, a freshman at Villa Duchesne and a student defense lawyer. “Cross-exam is the hardest and the most fun. I’m good at arguing, ask my dad.”

“I heard she was doing this, and I said, ‘Oh, that’s perfect,’” says her dad, Jim Gieszelmann, flashing an OK sign.

Gieszelmann also competes on the speech and debate team, performs with the show choir and manages the school’s basketball team. Oh, and she’s doing the academic decathlon.

“Not all of us are athletes, but some of us have a very competitive spirit, so it was a way to fulfill that competitive spirit,” says Christina Grove, a high school mock trial veteran who now coordinates the competition for BAMSL.

Despite the fervor, matches are generally won or lost under the larger high school radar. No participants interviewed for this story reported getting slushies to the face, à la “Glee,” but mock trial success doesn’t exactly crown them kings and queens of campus.

“I’d never heard of it,” says Susan Good, an English teacher at Mary Institute and Country Day School. A student asked Good to come to a match eight years ago. Now she’s a roadie who brings “baked treats” to competitions and whispers things like, “Objection, narration,” under her breath during cross-examinations.

“Once you’ve done this long enough, you realize you’ve become one of those people,” Jones, the Kirkwood attorney coach, says.

The rewards, while intangible, aren’t indescribable.

“I’ve gained skills as a public speaker, because you have to talk in front of the jurors that are lawyers,” says Sam Wolter, a Kirkwood student attorney who’s been in mock trial for three years. “I’ve gotten a little more assertive. My parents say it just makes me more argumentative. I always was, but now it’s more like, ‘Show me the proof.’”

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