At approximately 9:00 p.m., on the eve of the 24th Maryland State Mock Trial Championship, the Severn School’s Mock Trial team was forced to scramble for two defense attorneys when it was announced that they would undertake the role of Defense in the following day’s match, the Prosecution being represented by Allegany High School.
With only 13 hours before the championship at the Robert C. Murphy Courts of Appeals Building in Annapolis, Severn’s teacher-coach Susan Jackson grabbed the two most-experienced members from her prosecution squad and placed them with the defense, which was already short-handed due to prior educational obligations.
It was the latest in a long line of hurdles for a team that was not considered a contender for the state title at the beginning of the season. Whether it was having a young team with freshmen, sophomores and juniors in prominent roles, or facing fierce rival and 2006 State Champion, Severna Park High School (the only team to hand Severn a regular season loss) in the Circuit playoffs, the Admirals navigated a barrage of adversity through the 2007 season to get to the finals, where one last obstacle awaited.
Displaying amazing celerity, the two new defense members, Alex Fu and Hailey Robbins, acclimated themselves to the role-reversal and even reworked their predecessors’ closing arguments to better suit their style. Severn went on to beat Allegany in a highly-contested match by three points.
“The most nerve-racking part was the night before,” Jackson admitted after the decision from presiding Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Clayton Greene, Jr., and scoring judges Rodney Warren and Stacy McCormack had been rendered. “We had no idea how well we were going to do.”
In the finals, performance is vital, and despite Jackson’s surprise, the signs of a stellar performance from her team were visible long before the championship on April 27.
An implicit relationship that has long stirred the mixture for success in Mock Trial competition has been between the theater arts program and the Mock Trial team.
“The students that gravitate to the program are theater students, since we are graded in our performance,” says Jackson, an Honors English teacher and the bellwether of Severn’s Mock Trial team for six years.
Organization, preparation, presentation, decorum, respect and demeanor are some of the aspects in the grading rubric during Mock Trial competition, not to mention traits theater students exhibit in their act of creating and maintaining different characters and/or personas. Aspects like court room procedure and the comprehension of law are learned during their Mock Trial time.
“Some of the best witnesses are kids that are in theater and drama, because they understand they are acting out a role,” notes Shelley Wojciechowski, Assistant Director of the Citizenship Law Related Education Program (CLREP), which organizes the yearly Mock Trial competition. “These kids get into these roles – they embrace them, they become these people. It is an unbelievable transformation that takes place on the witness stand. I think, equally, the theater teachers realize that this is a good opportunity for their kids – it’s an acting role.”
The case, reproduced in more than 600 enactments this year, dealt with Internet stalking, in which Jamie Walker, a college freshman, accuses Quinn Stein, a fellow student at the same college, of harassment through e-mails and electronic messages. Reports from across the state relayed the message that the case was extremely “balanced” as innocent and guilty decisions were fairly close. Conceding that the defense’s case hinges on the Quinn Stein character, Severn appointed sophomore Caroline Nyce, an actress in her community’s theater troupe, to play the role.
“The witness performances are often the most important,” says Jackson. “The team can win or lose a trial based on witness performance – and the witnesses need to be prepared for all kinds of questions. They really need to think on their feet.”
While acting and performing are integral parts for winning in Mock Trial, the students have not compromised themselves by becoming parodies of lawyers; rather, the teachers have kept them grounded through different methods. For example, Severn, at the behest of their attorney-coaches, utilizes a conservative style in the court room, which the judges have come to appreciate and accept – even drawing acknowledgement from the Judge during the final match.
“This is not like television,” said Judge Greene, referring to the teams’ methodical style, prior to announcing the champion. Indeed, these kids display a lot more passion and talent.