March 13, 2010
Mock trial turns classroom into courtroom
Cortland High students learn lessons of jurisprudence as they compete against regional schools
MANLIUS — Defense attorney Hannah Zhang objected to the prosecution’s questioning of a witness. The judge overruled.
The Cortland High School freshman objected twice more a few minutes later, saying one bit of testimony was hearsay, another was speculation. The judge, Manlius attorney Douglas Zamelis, asked her why, listened to her reasons and agreed, sustaining her objections.
During a 90-minute trial in the Onondaga County Mock Trial competition Thursday, high school students played the roles of lawyers and witnesses, calling upon their knowledge of a case given to all mock trial teams in New York.
The courtroom was a classroom at Fayetteville-Manlius High School, with a podium for the attorney asking questions, a witness table, and rows of desks facing the judge. The competition was round two, leading to state competition in May.
Students are judged not just on their knowledge but on how they conduct themselves, as the competition — sponsored by the New York State Bar Association and county bar associations — teaches civility, professionalism and ethics, according to the rules.
The exercise mimics real trials.
Everyone rises when the judge enters; he tells them to sit. The students ask his permission to give evidence to witnesses. They offer opening arguments and closing statements.
Three Cortland students played defense attorneys and three others played the defendant — Shawn Miller, a former partner in a fictional Wall Street investment firm — and two other defense witnesses.
On another day, Cortland could have been the prosecution. Its six-person prosecution team sat watching the defense, along with their coaches, teacher Lori Megivern and attorney Harns Lindenfeld.
The case revolved around clients who lost money in elaborate schemes allegedly concocted by the defendant and his partner. The defendant had been indicted for securities fraud.
All roles could be either male or female.
The defense contended that Miller was not knowledgeable enough and his job was simply to recruit clients while his partner invested the money.
The two were childhood friends, but the partner had attended exclusive schools and built more impressive credentials.
Zhang asked question after question of the witness, a Manlius Pebble Hill School student playing the executive assistant to Miller’s partner. At one point, Zhang caught him forgetting he was an unindicted co-conspirator, according to his own affidavit.
The witnesses needed to understand their role and background. The attorneys needed to grasp the evidence and the law used as the basis for the case, the Martin Act.
Cortland’s defense attorneys were Zhang, junior James Williams and senior Deedi Boland. Junior Jack O’Donnell played Miller, junior Adam Edwards and senior Danielle Dineen played witnesses.
The students seemed to keep their emotions in check, although they were nervous.
Williams caused everyone to laugh when he followed a prosecution witness’ long answer with a terse, “So, to clarify, that would be yes?” Zamelis caused laughter when he interrupted Boland as she asked about the defendant’s SAT scores, saying, “SAT scores have nothing to do with success in a career. Take note of that.”
The Cortland students took part in mock trial as an offshoot of Megivern’s law class.
O’Donnell and Edwards said they were not necessarily interested in law careers but thought the mock trial would be fun. Dineen said she was now thinking about law, as she heads for SUNY Fredonia next year.
O’Donnell and Boland balanced mock trial practices with play rehearsals, playing roles in this weekend’s production of “Diary of Anne Frank.”
“It’s a lot to memorize, three or four solid pages,” O’Donnell said of playing Miller.
Asked if the trials became easier over time, O’Donnell said, “Absolutely not. It’s still nerve-wracking. On the stand, you’re shaking but you try to keep your nerves down. The worst part is when the judge tallies the points.”
Zamelis ruled in favor of Manlius Pebble Hill, giving Cortland its first loss of this season after victories against Cazenovia and Jordan-Elbridge. That ended Cortland’s season.
In the end, Zamelis said that the Martin Act — a 1921 New York law outlining the basis for charging securities fraud — provided the prosecution with enough strength to have the upper hand.
He said this was not often the case in real life, where prosecutors struggle to prove a case beyond reasonable doubt.
But Zamelis praised both teams, saying their professionalism and poise were equal to law school students in moot court competitions.
He told the Cortland students that when a judge asks if they would like redirect on a witness, they should, especially when he could see “weaknesses in the fact pattern for prosecution witnesses.”
A redirect allows an attorney who called a witness to clarify his or her testimony after cross examination.
He said judges are either “hot,” meaning they know the case well and have made up their minds before the trial, or “cold,” meaning they are too busy to study the case and rely on courtroom testimony. He said he was a cold judge Thursday.
“Judges never believe lawyers, they believe experts and real people,” Zamelis said.
Cortland’s prosecution team consisted of Beau Lacey, Charles Anumonwo, Urbashee Paul, David Russell, Meressa Darling and Danielle Payne.
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