It was a surreal scene. On a Wednesday afternoon a couple dozen Clovis North students sat inside a courtroom, eating pizza and sharing opinions regarding O.J. Simpson’s 1995 murder trial, an event that took place before they were born.
“With the O.J. case,” Hannah Berry confidently declared, “the fatal error in that trial was how the experts couldn’t convey the evidence in a laymen’s way to the people, and they couldn’t get across to them how much evidence they had against O.J.”
It helps to know a few things if you find yourself in the middle of this scenario:
1. Berry is referencing “American Crime Story,” the current FX miniseries that dramatizes O.J. Simpson’s 1995 murder trial.
2. The courtroom she’s in is actually a classroom, albeit one dressed up to look like something one might encounter inside a courthouse.
3. As members of Fresno County’s championship Mock Trial team, Berry and her peers are perhaps more qualified than most to analyze the O.J. Simpson trial. After all, they’ve spent the entire school year putting each other on trial for murder.
Yes, murder. Each year, the high school participants in California’s Mock Trial program are given a new case to try for the entirety of the season. This year’s case involves a second degree murder charge.
The Clovis North team narrowly beat rival Clovis West to win the county tournament on Feb. 4. Now they’re preparing their case for March’s state tournament in Sacramento, where they will represent Fresno County.
Clovis North last attended the state tournament in 2012.
Mock Trial, which in California is sponsored by the Constitutional Rights Foundation (CRF), was introduced to the state 1980. The nonprofit, nonpartisan organization seeks to “instill in our nation’s youth a deeper understanding of citizenship through values expressed in our Constitution and its Bill of Rights.”
The Mock Trial competition is one vehicle through which this is achieved. Each year, participating teams are given a legal case based on important issues of the day. As in a real trial, they must present and argue it before a judge.
“Mock Trial is a speaking and performance competition with a law component,” explained junior Trent Kammerer, who plays a witness in the proceedings. “I like to call it a law play because that’s bascally what it is. We’re given scripts and parameters to stick within, and we try to come up with a verdict that each side desires.”
This year’s case, “People vs. Hayes,” addresses the Fifth Amendment. The Fifth Amendment protects defendants from having to testify if their testimony would be self-incriminatory.
The murder central to “People vs. Hayes,” explained sophomore Lindsay Decker, takes place on the fictional Central Coast University Campus and involves an altercation between a student athlete and a campus security guard.
Each time they face off against a different team, the students take on the case’s roles (they play everything from witnesses to attorneys) and go through all of the proceedings of a real trial: the pre-trial hearing, introduction of evidence, opening statements, direct examination, cross examination, re-direct examination and closing arguments.
Success depends on more than having a working knowledge of the law and familiarity with the fictional case. Students must also be able to think on their feet and improvise when necessary, said U.S. history teacher Linda Linder, who has coached the team since its inception in 2008.
“They will know what their direct examinations are because that’s what they practice,” she said, “but they will never really know what the cross examinations are because that’s the other team. Almost every trial is unique and different, depending on the team you go against.
“Scoring itself doesn’t have anything to do with the verdict,” she added. “The scoring is done throughout the trial and each performer is scored based on their performance ability, their knowledge of their role or their subject. Throughout the entire trial the judges are scoring them based on a 5-point scale, and all those points add up in the end.”
Only six points separated Clovis North from second place Clovis West at the county tournament.
That in itself was quite a feat. With few returning varsity members, Linder said, the majority of the team was made up of first- and second-year students. “We were kind of rebuilding this year,” she acknowledged. “It’s a pretty amazing thing to go all the way through with such a rookie team.”
The winning team began preparing for this year’s season with summer “boot camps,” which included a workshop with a professional consultant, Stand Up Mock Trial.
They also scrimmaged against teams from other areas of the state. This gave them the opportunity to hone their arguments and nail their roles.
“My initial pre-trial argument was completely different,” said junior Gianna Wood, who plays a pre-trial attorney. “I went through one scrimmage and the way my opposing counsel had his framed ... we took that and used it for both sides, and it works extremely well.”
“We can always get better,” Linder explained. “[We look] for new ways to inspire our students to achieve at higher levels. The more teams we are exposed to, the more we learn, [and] the more we can create our own unique version of how we present the trial.”
Part of their unique preparation included holding practice sessions in a classroom that’s been converted into a realistic-looking courtroom, which was built by students and other volunteers. It was conceived by the team’s attorney coach, Kevin Hansen, a partner at Fresno’s McCormick Barstow law firm.
All of this preparation helped as they began to compete against other county schools. County matches took place in January, with the semi-final and final rounds taking place in the beginning of February.
The team will continue to hone their skills and review the case in preparation for the state tournament. The winner of that tournament will advance to the national champsionship in Boise, Idaho.
Win or lose, Linder said, the skills they’ve developed will serve them well in the future — beyond, of course, their newfound ability to analyze legal dramas.
“I would say most of these people aren’t going into law, but the skills they learn in mock trial ... the thinking on your feet, being articulate, being able to respond quickly to a question coming out of nowhere, just building confidence in [their] own ability to speak, esepecially in a stressful situation ... they’re going to have to go through job interviews, scholarship interviews. They’re going to use those skills for the rest of their lives, so we focus a lot on that.
“Winning is really nice, but it’s the intrinsic skills that [they] learn that are the most long-lasting.”