Perry, Lake mock trial teams ready for state finals
Benjamin Nist stood behind the lectern, eyes pinned on the student seated less than 10 feet away.
Nist was portraying the attorney at a recent Lake High mock trial practice, the other student was playing a witness. Next to the teenage girl was a local attorney in the role of judge. Surrounding them in the classroom was a mural of the Statue of Liberty, law books, newspaper articles about local trials and an American flag.
Perry High students depicted similar roles a few days later. Their classroom was also transformed into a makeshift courtroom.
Both schools were preparing for the state level of the mock trial competition that begins Thursday in Columbus. Perry and Lake have advanced past the district and regional rounds.
The 34th annual Mock Trial Competition, which takes place through Saturday, is a program of the Ohio Center for Law-Related Education. More than 3,500 students participate each year.
This year's case is a defamation lawsuit involving a political candidate and a TV station.
Perry and Lake are competing among a total of 32 teams. More than 20 schools are represented. The state champion advances to the National High School Mock Trial Championship in Hartford, Conn., in May.
Lake's recent mock trial practice, one of many, was at night. Perry's recent session, also one of several, was after school. Both groups dedicate themselves to learning the nuances of the legal world, memorizing portions of the mock trial case, rehearsing their roles until they become second nature. And they do this while reacting to objections raised and new questions posed during the course of the pretend case.
Mock trial competitions may not garner as much notoriety as high school sports and other activities, but the commitment is just as demanding, said the faculty advisers heading each team, Debra Warstler at Perry and Teresa Miller at Lake.
This is Lake's first trip to state finals and the second in three years for Perry.
"There's a lot of parallels (with sports)," Miller said. "Just the competitive nature. Your adrenaline is pumping, your heart rate goes up; I see the kids and they have nerves. ... It's like in tennis ... once you serve that first serve across the net, your nerves calm and you play the game."
Warstler previously coached the speech and debate team at Perry. Most of her mock trial students also participate in speech and debate.
Competition is more elite at the state level. Both advisers noted that some schools have maintained successful mock trial programs for decades.
"It's such a difficult thing and it's amazing what the kids do," Warstler said of her students.
"I think they all love competition and they all like playing the parts," she said. "It's just a fun activity and I think it challenges them intellectually. I think they're smart kids ... and they all love it."
Grace DiGiulio, Perry's senior class president, considers mock trial as competitive as sports. During cross-examination, "you have to get witnesses ... to say the exact information you need them to say to prove your point (and once that happens) it's like that cherry on top; it completes the circle."
Siera Forney, also a senior at Perry, believes that skills required for speech and debate transfer to mock trial, including speaking abilities, eye contact and word annunciation.
Those communication skills also are applicable to life in general, she said. "I just think it's so much more rewarding and intimate to be able to communicate with someone face-to-face," Forney said.
Taylor Anthony, a Perry sophomore, also participates in speech and debate, cheerleading and track. "You can't always think of yourself," Taylor said of carving out time for mock trial. "It's the satisfaction of knowing you did the best you could."
Perry junior J.T. Greiner said the adrenaline rush of mock trial competitions is similar to athletics. "It's a team aspect," Greiner said. "If one of you fails, the team fails."
Lake junior Autumn Crawford also drew the analogy with sports.
"You have a team that you're competing on so you have to perform well," Crawford said.
Lake senior Esther Peach said she enjoys portraying an expert witness for the prosecution. "You become that witness," she said.
Nist, a Hoover High School student who is enrolled in the legal studies class at Lake and participates on its mock trial team, said that learning mock trial skills is an extension of the country's founding principles.
"I really enjoy the fact that we live in a country where you can get a fair trial," the junior said.
Katelyn Campisi is a senior at Jackson High School who is enrolled in the legal studies class at Lake and competes on its mock trial team.
Campisi acknowledges being stricken with nerves during a mock trial. "My heart's racing when I think about it," she said.
Preparation extends beyond the formal practices. "I probably go over my opening statement in my head ... when I'm working out."
Other mock trial team members at Lake include Samantha Wilhelm, Layla Fetters, Gabrielle Koesel and Tyler Gray.
Advancing to state
Both mock trial advisers rely on local attorneys for assistance and guidance. The input is invaluable, Miller and Warstler said. Attorney Ron Starkey is a legal adviser for Lake. Attorney John Burnworth serves in that role for Perry.
Warstler and Miller are proud of their students for reaching the final round of competition.
The key to competing at state? Preparation, preparation, preparation. During the mock trial, it's crucial to listen and focus.
"They just know they have to be sharper, they can't let down," Warstler said. "I feel we have a good shot this year."
Article by Ed Balint
CantonRep.com staff writer