Not guilty: Mock Trial team casts doubt on ‘aggressive’ Rio witnesses through effective objections
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As soon as the clock struck 4:45 p.m. on Feb. 27, court was in session at the ceremonial courtroom on the 16th floor of the Robert T. Matsui United States Courthouse.
Tensions were high, but not because the leader of anti-immigrant organization “Our America,” Alex Thompson, had been killed at a political rally months prior – or because the main suspect for first-degree murder, pro-immigrant Casey Davidson, was in court wearing a gray cardigan and a blank expression and claiming she was not guilty.
In fact, Davidson’s innocence wasn’t really on the line; the Country Day Mock Trial team’s success was, though.
For SCDS, this trial could have been their last time defending Davidson (played by freshman Sarina Rye) in the fictional “The People v. Davidson” case; but after over two hours of rapid-fire objections, the attempted impeachment of a Country Day witness and even a few tears, Country Day beat Rio Americano High School to advance to the state competition, a first in school history.
On Friday, March 16, in Orange County, California, the Mock Trial team will do something they have never done: experience competing against at least 31 other teams for a spot in the national competition.
Nonetheless, Rio gave the team “a heck of a run for (its) money,” as junior Blake Lincoln, an expert witness for the both the defense and the prosecution, said.
For the past 15 years, Rio Americano and Elk Grove High School have been trading the title of Sacramento County champion back and forth.
So dethroning Rio was not going to be easy.
For many of the team members, the odds of winning this trial were “50-50.”
And during the pre-trial, it seemed as though it was Rio’s trial to lose.
The pre-trial argument was whether or not the court would accept GPS data taken from Davidson’s car, an issue that Mock Trial coach Rick Lewkowitz. said is very current in light of the ongoing “U.S. v. Carpenter” Supreme Court case.
“We don’t know what (the Supreme Court justices) are going to decide, but they’re deciding if GPS info needs to be obtained via a search warrant or if it isn’t protected via the Fourth Amendment,” Lewkowitz said.
Lincoln said that typically the judges have ruled in favor of the defense; however, the presiding judge William B. Shubb, a Fourth Amendment expert, “threw off” many Mock Trial team members by ruling in favor of the prosecution and allowing the data into the trial.
Defense pre-trialer sophomore Héloïse Schep lost three of the four ballots to Rio’s Nate Barry, who received three perfect scores out of four.
According to Lincoln, who is also the prosecuting pre-trialer for Country Day, Rio’s pre-trialer came up with original points that Lincoln had not thought of or heard before, which he said definitely contributed to Rio winning pre-trial.
But Rio’s prospect of victory dissipated quickly afterwards.
According to Lewkowitz, the pre-trial was Rio’s strongest section. After the real trial began, Rio started making serious mistakes, giving Country Day an early edge.
Before defense attorneys juniors Jack Christian and Gabi Alvarado could begin objecting, Rio made an unusual decision that Lewkowitz said he hadn’t seen since early on in the season: they tried to force medical record information into the evidence, which Christian said has “absolutely no foundation in the testimony.”
Even Shubb tried to “give her a hint” by asking Rio’s attorney multiple times to get medical records from the witness himself.
Thus, Lewkowitz said that Rio started the actual trial off rapidly “losing their foundation” and “struggling” with cross-examinations.
What Rio lacked in attorneys they made up for in witnesses, though.
Schep said that although the team hadn’t faced Rio until that evening, she could still tell their witnesses were skilled.
“They were amazing, incredibly believable, and they fought Jack and Gabi a lot during the cross examinations,” Schep said.
However, according to Lincoln, Rio’s witnesses were also “a little more scripted,” allowing Country Day to “throw them off their usual script” with ease.
One of the ways Country Day threw Rio off was through their objections.
Christian said that at the beginning of the Mock Trial season, all teams are given a case packet, which includes a list of possible objections for both sides.
Yet Rio only objected two times.
“It’s very common for high school students to say something rogue or freeze when something unusual is brought up,” Lewkowitz said.
“Jack and Gabi don’t do that. They think the problem through and respond logically. Whether or not they’re right, as long as they do a persuasive job of handling the situation, it’ll be strong.”
And strong they were. Multiple judges, including Shubb, commented on Alvarado and Christian’s “brilliant” objections.
One example was Christian’s objection to the entrance of the medical records.
Christian questioned the foundation for the exhibit, an objection which Christian said he had never tried and was surprised the judge upheld. The medical records ended up never being entered into evidence due to Christian’s objection.
According to Lewkowitz, Country Day’s objections were especially effective against Rio’s “too confident” and, at times, “aggressive” players.
“Our witnesses were polite and normal with the other side’s attorneys whereas Rio’s fought back a bit,” he said.
“They’d attack the little things.”
At one point in the trial, Christian asked one of Rio’s witnesses if it was “very difficult” to match a blunt force weapon to a blunt force trauma, and the witness’s reply was, “No sir, it is not ‘very difficult’; it is only ‘difficult.’”
Country Day’s witnesses weren’t problem free, though.
“Later in the trial, our mistakes were there,” Lewkowitz said.
Witness Fabian Moreno (freshman Ming Zhu) tried to include information that was not originally in his statement, and Rio capitalized on that by trying to impeach him.
“(Zhu) was trying hard to not be cooperative – trying to help the team – but that backfired,” Lewkowitz said.
Although the information about the suspect’s whereabouts would likely have been known according to the factual statement included in the packet, Zhu did not include it in his written statement.
Lewkowitz, who worked as a district attorney for over 30 years, said that in the real world this situation is all too common.
“In real life that happens all the time,” he said. “A police officer or a witness is too busy and forgets something and then doesn’t get it down.”
Therefore, prior to the trial the team decided to take the risk and let Zhu testify even though the information wasn’t in his written statement.
Fortunately, Rio’s impeachment was not upheld, but Zhu’s score was impacted.
Regardless, Lewkowitz said he believes Zhu is doing a good job as a witness, especially considering his age.
“Ming listening and dealing with precise questions is just fantastic,” he said. “Sometimes student attorneys will misstate something in their question, and then he will speak out and start questioning.”
But there was one witness who served as a model for both teams: expert witness Dr. Tori Lee (played by Lincoln).
“Blake was the reason that we got a not-guilty verdict,” Christian said.
After the trial had ended and the scorers were talking to the two teams, one of them told Lincoln that he “would hire (him) tomorrow.”
“Every scoring judge has loved Blake,” Christian said.
“He isn’t the expert that tries to fight with the attorney; he tells the truth in his normal voice, and he casts that unreasonable doubt.”
Because the case is a first-degree murder, Country Day needed only to sow doubt while on defense.
Christian said that in order for the prosecution to convict Davidson, it needed to be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt – higher than 95 percent – that she acted deliberately and that her attack was premeditated.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Lewkowitz said that in real life, nine out of every 10 Davidsons would not be convicted.
“For prosecution, you have to convince 12 people beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty, but with the defense, all you need is enough evidence to decide that there is doubt,” Lewkowitz said.
Alvarado agreed, adding that the team’s defense case is also stronger.
“The circumstantial evidence and the high burden on the prosecution really gives an idea of how hard it is to prove something beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Therefore, Alvarado said she thought that being on defense worked in Country Day’s favor.
While team members went into this trial deeming it as “their chance” to get to states, Lewkowitz, with his almost 20 years of experience as a Constitutional Rights Foundation Mock Trial coach, said he was certain of victory.
“The team was peaking, especially Jack and Gabi,” he said. “Every trial they were getting better; the whole team was focused and together.
In fact, Schep said Lewkowitz had printed out the permission slips for state competition before the last trial.
“He told us that he had never done that for Elk Grove because he’s usually too superstitious,” Schep added.
—By Chardonnay Needler