‘World class’ mock trial team courts big challenge

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Seven students with the Port Townsend High School mock trial team are to travel to San Francisco in October to compete in the Empire Mock Trial “Battle by the Bay” international competition.

“We work really hard and we actually accomplish a lot more than what people might expect from a bunch of teenagers,” said Maria Morrison, one of the seven.

“It’s a three-hour trial that we do. And we can pull that all together and actually have convincing arguments.

“We have attorneys who come up to us and say, ‘Wow, that was really awesome to hear. That sounded like something that I would have liked to have given,’” Morrison said.

Traveling with Morrison are teammates Corinne Pierson, Joe Calodich, Sara Lee, Emillia Nunn, Finn O’Donnell and Sorina Johnston.

This is the second Empire event for the Port Townsend team, as it also competed at Empire two years ago. Then, it competed against 22 teams from all over the world, including Sydney, Australia, and Hong Kong.

THIRD IN STATE

Empire Mock Trial is an invitational event, separate from the regular Washington State YMCA Mock Trial Competition, which the team also competes in.

Although the Empire delegation has seven members, the regular school mock trial team has approximately 20-25 members.

Port Townsend High School (PTHS) took third place this year at the state competition. At state, Seattle Preparatory School placed first and Franklin High School in Seattle placed second.

“That’s good company,” said Chris Pierson, who is the mock trial coach and also Corinne Pierson’s father.

Morrison and Corinne Pierson have spent a lot of their free time this summer preparing for Empire. One of their tasks was to talk about the Empire contest during a 7 a.m. Port Townsend Rotary Club meeting on Aug. 23.

As Rotarians enjoyed breakfast, the two students fielded several questions. One Rotarian asked if the two were planning to become lawyers one day. Morrison and Pierson, both seniors at PTHS, said they weren’t certain they would choose it as a career just yet.

Pierson told the Rotarians that being on the mock trial team has boosted her confidence in public speaking and also given her the ability to write persuasive arguments.

Morrison said she is fearless when it comes to speaking in public, but added that being in mock trial has enabled her to say something worth listening to.

“I was never scared of public speaking necessarily before, but I feel 100 percent confident to go up and stand in front of a group of people that I have never met,” Morrison said.

“It’s not just the matter of standing up and not being scared, but it’s standing up, not being scared and saying something worth listening to,” Morrison said.

“It’s being able to think on your feet, being able to just have a basic outline of what you’re going to say in your head and then say something meaningful,” Pierson added.

At the end of the students’ presentation, the Rotary Club donated $400 to the team.

COMPETING WITH BIG SCHOOLS

That’s money the Port Townsend Empire team will make good use of, as attending the competition costs thousands of dollars. (PTHS is not permitted to help pay for the trip, according to team members.)

The competition takes place Oct. 5-9 at U.S. District Court of Northern California in San Francisco.

The team has already paid registration fees and airfare, but its members are currently working to save up another $4,000 they’ll need to pay for hotel rooms at the Parc 55 hotel in downtown San Francisco. All teams are required to stay at that hotel.

Pierson said she’s been involved in mock trial for a “really long time” because of her father. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it completely when I got into high school, but I’ve really enjoyed it,” Pierson said. “It’s a really valuable experience, public speaking wise, just thinking wise. And you learn a lot about the law as well as about our court system. And it’s also just a lot of fun,” Pierson said.

Making Empire Mock Trial even more difficult is the fact that the competition isn’t like school sporting events in which small schools are matched up against schools of similar size.

At Empire, schools of all sizes compete against one another.

“We compete against Seattle Prep, University Prep. All the really big, rich private schools in Seattle,” Pierson said.

“We pride ourselves on being not only less scripted, but also writing a lot of our own arguments, that some of the other schools necessarily don’t do,” Morrison said.

“A lot of the larger schools sometimes have attorneys that write their arguments for them, and then the kids memorize them and give really nice speeches. They don’t really know what they’re saying half the time.

“So, we write all of our own speeches.… Maybe we give it to an attorney or Mr. Pierson to review. But we definitely write our own stuff and we try to not memorize it necessarily word for word, but just memorize our points and kind of go off of that,” Morrison said.

Jefferson County District Court Judge Jill Landes, county Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Julie St. Marie and mock trial coach Chris Pierson are helping the team prepare for Empire.

Corinne Pierson said attorneys and judges have told team members that they sound like attorneys they hear every day in trials.

BUILDING A CASE

When the year begins, the team reads the case and then develops a theory of how to martial a set of facts to build a logical case.

“And then we come up with what we need to bring out of the witnesses to form that,” Morrison said.

The case that the team is to argue is fictional, but it is based on a real case about a 17-year-old boy who was jailed on a charge of possession of marijuana and then physically and emotionally abused in prison. The teen later became addicted to heroin and later jumped off a bridge to his death.

Some team members do not write their arguments on paper, but are able to listen to what happens at the trial and then get up and talk. Pierson prefers to plan on paper, however.

“I always at least like to have an outline. I write out my argument at the beginning of the season. And then if I need to change it during the trial, then I have it well enough in my head that I can,” Pierson said.

“We write our whole thing down and then kind of memorize not so much word for word, but like memorize this paragraph is about that, that, that, that and then we can change it,” Morrison said.

Pierson said that three of the competition’s jury members are real attorneys who score mock trial team members on a 0-10 scale, with 10 points being the highest. Team members are judged on their ability to think on their feet and on their ability to deliver a smooth, cohesive argument.

There are four three-hour trials. The teams face off in a bracket. Team members change roles, playing the role of attorney for one case, and serving as witness in another.

Each member earns points for a total team score. It’s team points, not winning or losing the actual court case, that determines the winner.

“The ruling doesn’t matter,” coach Chris Pierson said.

EMOTION AND LOGIC

Team members use both logic and emotion to win the jury over.

“Emotion definitely does play a part, especially for the prosecution in this case,” Corinne Pierson said. One of the witnesses for the case is the deceased teenager’s mother.

“So, the prosecution likes to play on the jury’s emotions, but the defense’s role in this case is to bring it back to logic,” Pierson said.

Morrison said they have a pool of four witnesses, but may use only three of them, so the team has to choose between using the grieving mother and a prison standards expert.

“So, that’s a question … how much do you want to play to emotions?” Pierson said.

The team have decided to go with the prison standards expert.

Yet its members can still make an appeal to emotion in the closing statement by referring to the young man as one who did well in school, but because of his adverse experience in prison, wound up jumping off the bridge. But they’re just not bringing the emotion out in a witness.

The event can be exciting, team members said.

“There’s an adrenaline [rush], like sports, but it’s intellectual,” Chris Pierson said, adding that the Port Townsend team is “world class.”

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