I Totally Object
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.
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.
Only minutes later, after her testimony, she reverts to girlhood, fashioning a Play-Doh snowman while another freshman gets a grilling.
Despite the large number of underclassmen on Deer Valley's two teams, there's no mistaking the intensity in the room: Deer Valley is the Nebraska football program of Arizona mock trial, a powerhouse that churns out strong teams year after year.
In mock trial, high school students test their acting, oratorical and legal skills by portraying witnesses and attorneys in the presence of real-life judges. Since the event's start in 1982, local attorneys who organize it have striven for virtual trials that come as close as possible to the real thing, providing "the opportunity to experience the judicial system and develop citizenship skills," according to its sponsor, the Arizona Bar Foundation. (All Arizona teams argue the same, Angie Wood/Cody Sullivan case for 1998 competitions.)
Students are scored for their ability to trip up each other in cross-examinations and objections. Judges award points on a 10-point scale for each performance by witnesses and the attorneys who direct and cross-examine them. Teams can win a total of 110 points per trial, which lasts a little more than an hour. The team that can think on its feet and not rely on scripted speeches usually wins.
And that takes practice. It takes arduous repetition and immersion in the courtroom environment. And that's what students at Deer Valley get.
Presiding during practice as judge is Bill Gates, a 26-year-old attorney with Fennemore Craig who not so long ago was himself a member of Deer Valley's storied mock-trial team. (Only a few mock-trial participants go on to become actual lawyers, according to Gates.) He overrules and sustains objections as the varsity and junior varsity teams have at each other. The performance is seamless, and hours go by, neither side letting on that they're play-acting.
Meanwhile, in the back of the room, Kathy Hedges takes players aside to offer them pep talks and advice about their performances.
Hedges is the irrepressible 15-year teacher-coach and mainstay behind Deer Valley's remarkable record. If that record suggests a grim determination to win, Hedges exudes the opposite, an infectious enthusiasm and disarming good humor.
Well, except for last year, Hedges admits. Last year, Hedges and her team were grimly determined to win a national championship.
The American-government teacher explains that reaching the national finals round in 1996 and losing out to a Michigan team had left Deer Valley confused and crushed.
Taking second was such a disappointment, she says, because it wasn't obvious why they had lost. Later, the team discovered some mistakes that apparently had cost them the crown.
Winning the national championship in 1997 was a vindication she and her players craved. She admits that she feels less drive to repeat that performance. "I know nobody will believe this, but my goal is never a national championship. I won't say I don't want another one, but it's not the same as last year."
In the past 10 years, the Glendale school has won eight state titles. With Deer Valley's national title last year, Arizona became the only state to have won two championships--the Catholic girls' school Xavier College Preparatory won in 1986.
In 1998, Xavier is one of several schools that Hedges knows will make it tough for her team to take a fourth consecutive state title.
So while other Arizona schools continue to improve, Deer Valley works constantly to make its veterans sharper and to mold the freshmen who will replace them.
When their practice round is over, Gates steps out of his role of judge and begins his postmortem, handing out compliments and critiques.
He seems especially tough on Lance Broberg, a four-year veteran who might qualify as the team's quarterback, if there were such a thing.
"I thought you were just trying to be too Perry Mason today," Gates tells Broberg, telling him to lighten up a little in his cross-examination of an expert witness. He turns it into a lesson for the rest of the students.
"If they're making smart-aleck answers, hammer them on it. But don't get into fights with the witnesses. The lawyer--the one with the law degree who's supposed to know better--the lawyer will always look bad in a fight with a witness," Gates says.
For Jessica Koons, Gates has a sneakier piece of advice. He tells her that after testifying to running from Sullivan, Koons should say, "I didn't know what he was going to do to me."
It's an improper piece of testimony that will plant in the jury's mind that a rape was averted. (In competition there is no jury, but they play as if there were.) A good attorney would ask that the judge strike the line from the trial's record--Sullivan isn't on trial for what he might have done.
A less perspicacious team might let such an utterance stand. Deer Valley and other teams also learn to stretch the rules by pushing at the limits of the case's known facts. A thin pamphlet of affidavits and other evidence is given to all students at the beginning of the mock-trial season, evidence that students memorize to the smallest detail. Teams sometimes embellish those facts, and thrash opponents who try the same thing.
Broberg and the rest of the varsity team quickly decide how they would object to Gates' suggested improper statement. It's an amazing process: The Deer Valley players dream up strategies to foil other teams, then come up with ways to neutralize those strategies if they're hit with them first.
Gates then turns to such minutiae as how the attorneys had gestured and where they had stood. No detail is too small. He gives Broberg some good-natured ribbing about glancing at the judge when he's questioning a witness. "The judge is the sun. Don't look at the judge. Don't look at the judge!" he says.
"This is about theatrics. When it comes down to it, what makes you a good trial lawyer is theatrics," Gates reminds them. "What makes you state champion is theatrics."
Across town the next day, Angie Wood is testifying again, but she can't stop laughing.
It's only a day before the state finals, but the Central High School team seems hopelessly disorganized. Emily Cuatto, playing Angie Wood, can't get through her testimony which has been largely revised by another player, Jessie Martori.
Martori has taken it upon herself to revamp several players' lines in a last-minute attempt to improve Central's performance, and it seems to be throwing everyone off track.
Attorney-coach Amy Schwartz tries to break it gently to Martori, but the rewrite isn't working, and she urges the students to go back to scripts they had memorized for the regional competition.
If Deer Valley's Cornhuskers were machinelike in their efficiency, Central High is the easygoing Valpo of mock trial, flying by the seat of its pants and hoping for an upset.
There's so little pressure in the room it doesn't seem surprising that half of the students show up late. One can't find her trial materials. Another is sick and complains that doctors can't tell her what's wrong.
Rather than run through an entire trial, the Central players practice in segments which frequently break down as players fall out of character. Teacher-coach Diana Krauss does her best to time the testimony, constantly clicking her stopwatch on and off.
Martori's testimony as a police detective is so funny it has the rest of the room laughing, and Krauss gives up trying to time it.
Martori plays Jessie Young, the detective who goes to Cody Sullivan's apartment after Angie Wood had reported Sullivan's attack nine days after it occurred. There, Young searches for the shirt Wood claimed Sullivan had ripped off her, and finds it stuffed under the cushions in his couch. Up the back is a large rip. Young also testifies that she saw faint bruises on Wood's arm and breast, but that they didn't show up on photographs she took.
Young's testimony is the most damning evidence against Sullivan, and Martori knows it. She promises actual attorneys Amy Schwartz and Roxana Bacon that she will be more serious in the next day's competition.
"And don't puff out your cheeks. What's that about?" Bacon asks Martori.
"We try to keep the pressure down, because we find the less pressure we feel, the better we do," says Michael Lopez, a junior who plays defendant Cody Sullivan as well as a prosecutor who gives the state's opening argument.
All players are required not only to play a witness as well as an attorney with specific tasks, but also to play both the defense and prosecution cases in alternating trials during a competition.
The practice takes place in Diana Krauss' English classroom, which is decorated with posters of Shakespeare productions and other artifacts one would expect to find in an honors English class. Besides coaching mock trial, Krauss also runs the school's speech and debate programs, and it was in speech contests that she became familiar with a particularly strong competitor from McClintock High School named Albert Cho.
As only a sophomore, Cho had won a statewide debate contest, and an additional state title and his oratorical abilities have made him something of a legend in the close-knit world of speech and debate. With a perfect score of 1600 on his SAT, the graduating senior and National Merit Scholar has been accepted by Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, Cornell, Columbia, Northwestern, Duke and Arizona State.
He shows up for practice late, but no one minds. He has a considerable drive from McClintock High, a drive he's made several times a week for months.
If he's a ringer, the other students don't give it away. He's treated like the rest, and his part seems no more important than that of Lopez or Cuatto or Martori. Cho certainly doesn't think his record as an orator will carry Central's team.
"Absolutely not," he says. "It's really illogical to think that someone who does well in speech and debate would automatically do well in mock trial." In mock trial, Albert says, he's "truly average."
He had first learned about mock trial when an older sister competed on Yale's squad, and he contacted Krauss in October to ask if there was room at Central since McClintock High didn't have a team. She told him if he could make the drive, they would give him a spot.
It wasn't until February, with only a week until the regional competitions, that someone complained.
The mock-trial program is run by several attorneys including Tim Hyland, who is himself a former Deer Valley mock-trial student. About a week before regionals, Hyland received an anonymous phone call making him aware of Albert Cho's presence on Central's team.
Hyland informed Central that since Cho was not a student enrolled at Central, he could not compete.
Central responded by pointing out that only two years earlier, when Central's mock-trial program was just beginning, a North High student named David Kamin had been allowed to participate at Central because North did not have a team of its own. (Central denies claims that Kamin was given special dispensation because his father was a Superior Court judge and because Central was trying to get its program off the ground.) Central's experience with Kamin had led Krauss and attorney-coaches Schwartz and Bacon to believe that they were simply doing the same for Cho.
While Central scrambled for a solution that would keep Cho on the team, Bacon told Hyland that it would be a shame if the mock-trial program ended up in court over the matter. Hyland took it as a threat to sue, but Krauss says Central never seriously considered it.
Instead, Krauss enrolled Cho in the special seminar, making him a Central student. Hyland declared Cho eligible.
At the regional competition, however, Xavier objected to Cho's presence to trial judges in both of the rounds the schools faced each other. Hyland informed the judges that the program had already settled the matter, and Krauss complains that Xavier simply wanted to prejudice the judges against Cho and Central High.
Xavier coach Steve Running, who formerly coached athletics, doesn't apologize for his team's objections. "You can't do it [take students from other schools] in sports. I guess it's legal. But I think it's cheap," he says.
Xavier won the regional competition. Central finished second, and Phoenix Country Day's two teams finished third and fourth. With only three teams advancing to the state finals, Central had knocked out the fourth-place finisher, Phoenix Country Day's second squad.
Three days later, Phoenix Country Day's coaches Anne Salzmann and Paul Schweikher protested Cho's presence in a letter to Phoenix Union High School District Superintendent Rene Diaz.
Diaz responded with a letter of his own charging that the coaches had impugned Central High without knowing all of the facts.
Kathy Hedges also wrote to Diaz, pointing out that since Deer Valley had advanced to the state finals from another regional competition, her school had suffered no consequence of Cho's participation. It was the principle of the thing that bothered her, she wrote. "Please examine the priorities currently being exercised at Central High School. I am sure that you will find that the gleam of a tarnished award won unjustly pales in comparison to doing what is right."
Two weeks later, Amy Schwartz wrote to Deer Valley and Phoenix Country Day describing the entire history of Albert Cho's participation at Central High.
Hedges is less forgiving. "I don't think anyone will know the whole story, but I don't want mock trial to be about the Cho story. People in the schools know the usual procedures."
Practicing for the state title, Hedges said she was unconcerned by Cho's presence at Central. Her players said the same thing. One player can't make too much difference anyway, said Lance Broberg and his teammates.
Deer Valley had yet to face Cho, however. On April 4, it would get its chance.
Acres of navy material fill the halls of Maricopa County's Superior Court. About 100 of Arizona's finest high school students all seem to have bought the same dark suit, and they scurry from courtroom to courtroom at the state mock-trial tournament.
It's well into the second round, and Central High School's April Allen is fending off a particularly bitchy cross-examination by a Chaparral High School attorney. Allen keeps her composure in her role as high school counselor Chris Thomas while an attractive Chaparral woman lays into her with surprising nastiness.
"For the girls, they need to be careful or they come off that way," coach Diana Krauss whispers as she watches from the gallery.
Allen, as Chris Thomas, sticks to her story: that following Sullivan's alleged attack, Angie Wood showed all of the emotional signs of a woman who had survived sexual abuse. It was Thomas who urged Wood to contact police, and it was Thomas who convinced Wood that she had been the victim of a crime.
Central's first round had gone well, and Krauss sensed that Chaparral was shooting itself in the foot with too many technical objections and the nastiness of its cross-examinations. Scoring isn't announced until well after the tournament, however, so schools have to guess their standing by how they're matched as the competition unfolds.
In a process called "power matching," teams that win early trials are paired up in later rounds. A team that's doing well should find itself facing tougher and tougher adversaries as the day progresses.
That's why it's a bit of a surprise that in the third round, Deer Valley finds itself facing Tucson's Sahuaro High, a school it knows little about.
Before the trial begins, Sahuaro coach Cathy Currier pays homage to Kathy Hedges. Currier tells her how much her students have learned after attending a clinic on mock trial Hedges had put on the year before. "You're my mentor!" Currier gushes.
Hedges is grateful for the compliment, but the poise of Sahuaro's young players makes her immediately nervous. "Her team beats my kids, I'm going to be pissed!" she says with a laugh.
And as the trial progresses, Hedges has reason to worry. The Sahuaro team seems to mirror Deer Valley's style and strategies.
Deer Valley's courtroom behavior is impeccable. Attorney-coaches Bill and Pam Gates have instilled in Broberg and his teammates a fine sense of courtroom etiquette that appears to impress Judge Timothy Berg. But Sahuaro acts almost as natural and well-mannered. If the trial between Central and Chaparral had dragged because of numerous technical objections, this trial seems to fly.
At the halfway mark, the Sahuaro student playing Cody Sullivan takes the stand in his own defense. Of course he hadn't assaulted Angie Wood, Sullivan testifies. She had simply become jealous and had invented her story because Sullivan had told her he would be returning to his native France at the end of the school year. As for the torn shirt, he had shown Officer Young that Wood had left other garments she had changed out of at his apartment, where she visited often.
Then Sahuaro's Sullivan makes a misstep. He claims that Wood's torn shirt was not found by Officer Young in the cushions of his couch (as the contest materials indicate) but hanging up in his closet.
Megan Nielsen pounces on the error. Another of Deer Valley's four-year veterans, Nielsen bores into Sullivan, impeaching him and making it seem effortless. Nielsen is cool and effective, but maybe it's just good genes. Her father is U.S. Bankruptcy Judge George Nielsen, who has a complex case of his own to deal with: the bankruptcy of former governor J. Fife Symington III.
Later, Nielsen delivers Deer Valley's closing argument for the prosecution, and she asks to use a comparison chart that the Sahuaro side had been preparing throughout the trial. Hedges shrugs, not knowing what Nielsen has up her sleeve.
For most other teams, opening and closing arguments are scripted speeches that students try to repeat verbatim. But Nielsen is doing something far more effective: She's making up her closing argument on the spot, turning Sahuaro's defense of Cody Sullivan against itself, and anticipating what Sahuaro will say in its closing. She raises her voice and lowers it, increases its pacing and pauses for dramatic effect. Finally, she makes her appeal. "Your Honor, the state asks that you return a verdict of guilty as charged."
Hedges grins. "I know I'm biased, but I wouldn't want to follow that," she says.
But that's just what Sahuaro's aptly named James Cool is faced with. The freshman does an admirable job, and Hedges admits that she's amazed. The strength of Sahuaro's underclassmen, she says, only means the competitive nature of Arizona's program will reach even scarier proportions in the coming years.
"Both sides are better than a lot of first-year lawyers I see," Judge Berg says after he's done scoring the round, and the adults in the gallery laugh.
Central, meanwhile, had faced Xavier in the third round, and Amy Schwartz says it had not gone well. The team had succeeded well enough, however, that in the fourth and last full round, it was matched with a giant.
Central would face Deer Valley for a chance at the final four.
If Central High had seemed distracted and dislocated in practice the day before, against Deer Valley it runs like a well-oiled machine.
Michael Lopez and Emily Cuatto get through Angie Wood's testimony without a hitch, and even Broberg can't shake Jessie Martori's performance as Officer Young.
Then, as Deer Valley presents its case--now as the defense--Megan Nielsen charms the room with her portrayal of Terry Washington. Washington, Cody Sullivan's roommate, backs up Sullivan's claim that Wood often left clothes at the apartment and that she had displayed an acute attack of jealousy the night of the alleged assault. Washington also testifies that when a tipsy Wood had fallen at that night's party, Washington had grabbed her arm, perhaps causing the bruises seen a week later by Officer Young.
By now every man, woman and child in the Maricopa County Superior Court building has heard Terry Washington and every other witness testify several times. But that's why Nielsen's version is so entertaining: She sounds completely different from all of the others.
For effect, Nielsen is delivering Washington's testimony in a New York accent. She sounds like Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, and everyone from the judge to Central's attorney-coach Amy Schwartz is beaming. It's a great performance from one of the strongest players on a national-championship team.
And rising from his seat to cross-examine her is Central High's Albert Cho.
Cho's questions are pointed and lightning fast, and Nielsen responds quickly and firmly. The two parry without stumbling or sounding impolite, and for a moment it's easy to forget that these are high school students in a pretend trial.
Cho turns the subject to sex. Wasn't it true that despite his girlfriend's protests that she was too young for a sexual relationship, Sullivan had felt Wood was old enough and wanted her to change her mind? Deer Valley's Erin Beatty objects to the question, but Judge Ken Skiff overrules it. Cho asks his question again: "Mr. Sullivan told you he wanted to have sex with her even if she didn't want to, didn't he?"
"Yes," Nielsen admits, and it seems a point scored for Central.
Cho then tries to establish Washington's bias. It's a tactic that nearly all teams try. Dozens of times in earlier trials, Washington had been asked if, as Sullivan's friend, she doesn't feel compelled to help Sullivan avoid trouble. And dozens of times earlier, students portraying Washington had tried to find a way to answer more than simply "yes."
It's Cho's final question, and he puts it to Nielsen: "You don't want to see Cody get in trouble, do you?" he asks.
Without hesitation, Nielsen smiles and in her best Marisa Tomei responds, "Especially for something he didn't do."
Score one for Deer Valley.
Lance Broberg closes for Deer Valley, Cho for Central. Afterward, Judge Skiff tells the room it's the best performance he's seen all day, and he singles out Broberg and Cho for praise.
Asked for a verdict, Skiff says that the contest materials seem to have a built-in advantage for the defense. "I think the assault probably happened, but I don't think the prosecution proved it beyond a reasonable doubt," he explains. Skiff doubts that any prosecutorial team had won all day, but Deer Valley's team corrects him. In its third round before Judge Berg, Deer Valley had won conviction of Sullivan. Skiff says that he's surprised.
After the students file out, Skiff privately admits that he gave Deer Valley the nod on his ballot. The teams now wait an agonizing few minutes as the mock-trial organizers calculate which four teams remain in the competition. Kathy Hedges and Diana Krauss learn their fates as they ride an elevator with a contest organizer.
Both teams have made the cut. However, the match-ups and courtroom assignments tell them something else: Central will go against Mountain Ridge High School for third place, and Deer Valley will compete with Xavier College Preparatory for the state championship.
Krauss smiles and Hedges elates. Krauss will admit later that the Central players were so exhausted after taking on Deer Valley some of them had hoped they hadn't made the finals at all. Having to do the trial one more time for second runner-up just seems like punishment.
Deer Valley, meanwhile, is one step away from going to the national competition for the fourth straight year.
The six girls of Xavier are squeezed into power suits with short skirts and dark hose, and they're putting Ally McBeal to shame.
They're sitting in a much larger, very crowded courtroom, awaiting the start of trial. Presiding is the Honorable Michael Ryan, a dour appellate court judge. Two other judges sit in the jury box, reflecting the gravity of this hearing.
A coin flip gives Xavier the task of prosecuting Cody Sullivan, Deer Valley the job of defending him. Again the parade of witnesses begins, and Angie Wood must once more describe the humiliation she feels.
It soon becomes obvious that both teams inhabit a rarefied level of mock-trial aptitude. Neither side is relying on rote testimony but can bob and weave with objections--both sides are lawyering in the truest sense.
Kathy Hedges can't take it. She repeatedly leaves the courtroom and comes back, a nervous wreck.
To the untrained eye, it's tough to see much difference in the performances of either side. Deer Valley lawyer/coach Bill Gates confirms that even to the insider, the match is a tight one. "It's going to be a close round," he says. "Xavier is good, but the Deer Valley kids have stayed on track."
Then, there seems to be a definite, if small, victory. Deer Valley's Jerry Stonehouse is questioning his teammate Vanessa Dahlquist, who is portraying Dr. Lee Streams. Streams is an expert witness meant to cast doubt on the testimony of high school counselor Chris Thomas. Streams questions Thomas' ability to judge by Angie Wood's behavior that she has been the victim of anything, and she testifies that Sullivan shows no signs of a man apt to attack women.
When Stonehouse asks Streams to offer an opinion on Wood's emotional state, a Xavier attorney objects, pointing out that Streams has never examined Woods. Ryan sustains the objection, but Stonehouse tries twice more to ask nearly the same question. Twice more, Xavier gets rare sustains from Ryan.
Stonehouse then recovers nicely, and he and Dahlquist finish out their testimony. Deer Valley rests its case.
Xavier's Allison Gibney closes strongly for the prosecution; Broberg makes the final argument for the defense.
The three judges exit the room to deliberate, and the two teams rush to congratulate each other as the courtroom erupts in noise. It's been an exhausting day, and both Deer Valley and Xavier seem more relieved to be finished than anything else.
Xavier coach Steve Running says his two attorney-coaches had called it a virtual tie, but Running felt his team had been the clear winner. By the luck of the draw, Xavier had found itself prosecuting, which it was much better at than defending, Running says.
A few minutes later, the judges returned to the courtroom and spent some time congratulating both sides, offering tips and compliments.
Then, the state of Arizona learned that it had a new mock-trial high school champion.
Xavier College Preparatory.
Central High School lost its final round and ended up in fourth place, but Diana Krauss insists it wasn't a difficult loss to take. Competing against Deer Valley in the fourth round had been the team's real prize, she says. And besides, Deer Valley's loss to Xavier had much greater implications.
Gates says the Deer Valley players kept a stiff upper lip and, like always, spent their post-contest evening at Fuddrucker's restaurant to tell war stories.
Running says his Xavier team had seemed relaxed during the trial, and for some reason, Deer Valley had seemed stiff. "They weren't really themselves," he says.
Perhaps it had been the Xavier strategy to object often, if only to throw off the Deer Valley attorneys. "You make objections, maybe unnecessarily, at the beginning to see what the judge will allow. It broke Deer Valley's rhythm. I used to be an athletic coach, and you see what the referees are going to let you get away with. Unfortunately, mock trial's like a game. I approach it like an athletic event," says the chemistry teacher.
He's candid about other things that bother him as his teen attorneys prepare for a much more convoluted case at the national championships next month.
Mock-trial students learn great skills for their college careers and beyond, but they're also learning the things that have given attorneys a miserable public image.
"I'd hate to think that the attorney-coach's role is to teach boys and girls how to lie. They put it differently and don't like to say that, but if you look at it, that's what the kids are learning," Running says. It concerned him enough to raise the issue with Xavier's principal when he was offered the job as teacher-coach two years ago. "This is a private Catholic school, so hopefully we're concerned more about our kids having better morals. I told the principal when I took the job that I had this problem about the program, and she replied that this is the way it is in real courtrooms, this is how it happens in real life, whether we like it or not."
Several times Running compares what happens in mock trial to the O.J. Simpson case, afraid that Arizona is creating a horde of Johnnie Cochranes.
"Back to back in three hours, we won both prosecution and defense cases. We proved this guy both guilty and innocent. But that's lost on the girls, who are more concerned about their performances. It doesn't seem to bother them," Running says.
Kathy Hedges reacted with shock at Running's complaints about the program. "I don't see us teaching students to lie, I don't see us teaching them to play outside the rules. I just don't think that's true at all. The students do know that mock trial is a game, but I strongly disagree with the idea that we teach kids to lie."
Central coach Diana Krauss similarly objects, saying that mock-trial goals aren't so cynical. "We're teaching them how to act and be believable. Not teaching them to lie," she says.
Nearly all participants agreed that the Cho controversy revealed an alarming rise in competitiveness in the program.
"Some schools are convinced that we're cheaters," says Central's Emily Cuatto, and she's afraid the Central team will become the Tanya Harding of mock trial in the mind of judges.
Albert Cho says it's neither judges nor students who are driving mock trial to competitive extremes.
"It's not the kids so much as the parents," he says. "They're instilling in their kids the qualities that people don't like about lawyers. Maybe that's why lawyers get the reputation they do, because they want to win at all costs."
As Arizona's mock-trial program continues to expand, other schools may begin to wonder if the program's claims to build character are as hollow as the same claims made by athletic departments.
No doubt just as many will defend mock trial for the success it makes of its graduates such as former mock-trial competitors Bill Gates and Tim Hyland.
For others, the rewards are more immediate. Says talented mock-trial star Megan Nielsen about her four-year odyssey in the grueling discipline, "I just wanted to argue in a setting that was acceptable and wouldn't get me grounded."
Contact Tony Ortega at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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