I Totally Object

Arizona's high-stakes high school mock-trial program teaches kids the basics of jurisprudence--including how to recruit a ringer

Central High School's ringer is coming down with the flu. Albert Cho is ingesting fluids as quickly as he can, but it isn't doing much good. In the big competition tomorrow, he knows he'll be in the grips of a fever.

Even healthy, Cho would hardly be intimidating. The slight Chinese-American senior is amiable and smiles easily, and it's hard to imagine that his presence on Central High's team has generated controversy.

But this is the world of high school mock trial, which, in Arizona, has become fiercely competitive. Think Texas high school football mania meets the speech club, and you get the idea.

It's April 3, the day before the state finals, and Cho's Central High team is one of 16 remaining after regional competitions eliminated about 80 other schools.

The sweet 16 will compete in an all-day event for the top prize--the state championship and a trip to Albuquerque for the big dance to name the country's best little lawyers.

Central may have a shot at that state title, but teacher-coach Diana Krauss insists that Central's chances are no better or worse with Cho, who is actually a student at McClintock High School in Tempe, on the team.

Other schools begged to differ. Phoenix Country Day School and Deer Valley High School protested last month when they learned that Cho--a state debate champion and National Merit Scholar--had been allowed to compete for Central.

It was a classic case of recruitment, they argued, and tarnished the image of a program that is first and foremost an educational experience.

Central argued back that Cho had asked to compete for Central because McClintock had no mock-trial team of its own. He had already put in many hours, and it would be unfair to kick him off after months of work.

Contest organizers agreed to let Cho stay on Central's team when the school enrolled Cho in a special seminar, making him an official student. Cho's duties in the seminar: to prepare for mock-trial competitions.

High school football coaches dream of such arrangements.
Mock-trial organizer Tim Hyland says the program had no choice but to let Cho compete; he has little doubt that, during the summer, rules will be scrutinized, and eligibility guidelines will likely change.

He says organizers may even examine Arizona Interscholastic Association rules that govern high school sports for guidance.

Which is fitting, considering how often sports metaphors are used when mock-trial competitors talk about what they do.

It's a sport of the mind that pits the brightest, most talented of high school students in a cerebral wrestling match that leaves lesser students writhing on the mat. There's no doubt the program hones desirable skills in students who rapidly mature beyond their classmates, but some concede that it introduces teenagers to the ruthless world of American jurisprudence, where telling a lie well is sometimes more effective than telling the truth badly.

But that's what makes it entertaining to watch, even in a grueling, all-day match like the state finals, where Arizona's teams were narrowed to a final four. After a year of sacrifice and hard work by hundreds of students, teachers and attorneys, one final round of trials was left to determine the state's top mock-trial team.

Perennial heavyweight Deer Valley was there.
And so was Central High, with Albert Cho.
The young woman looks distraught. Her eyes look hollow. Her voice wavers.

She is the victim of sexual assault, but as so often happens, she herself has been put on trial. In an almost accusatory tone of voice, her own attorney asks her why she had refused to have sex with the boyfriend who eventually attacked her.

Her eyes watering, the woman answers quietly, "I'm only 17. I didn't think I was ready for that kind of relationship."

Angie Wood then describes a party where she and her boyfriend, Cody Sullivan, had been drinking. Later, at his apartment, the couple began kissing and Sullivan got aggressive, opening her blouse against her wishes. Through tears, Wood goes on to testify that she escaped Sullivan's rage and ran home naked from the waist up after he ripped off her shirt.

Remembering the event, Wood looks stunned. Traumatized. Devastated.
Which is remarkable, since the attack never happened.
Jessica Koons is only 14, but she plays an extraordinary Angie Wood. Though she admits she enjoys cross-examining Wood even better.

"I go from crying about Cody assaulting me to destroying Angie on the stand," she says when she gets a break during a mock-trial practice session.

It takes place in a large lecture room at Deer Valley High School, where the nation's defending champion mock-trial team is preparing for state finals, a competition it has won three years in a row.

With four returning seniors on its six-person "varsity" team, it's easy to see why Deer Valley is the favorite to repeat at the April 4 state championship.

Koons is a freshman member of Deer Valley's junior varsity team. She hones her skills by practicing several times a week against a varsity squad made up mostly of seniors. It's toughened her quickly. Under pointed cross-examining by a varsity attorney, she holds her own while she's questioned about Cody Sullivan's unwanted rough handling of one of her breasts.

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