Ascending the steps of the Central Justice Center for the Orange County Superior Courthouse’s (700 W Civic Center Dr.) to their fourth and final trial of the Constitutional Rights Foundation (CRF)’s State Competition on March 17, the entire Mock Trial team was “exhausted,” assistant coach Hayley Graves said.
After all, the team, along with 700 other high school students, had been participating in trial after trial since 5:30 p.m. the day before, rising before 8:30 a.m. to get changed into their formal courtroom attire.
And at 10 p.m. that Saturday, team members learned that they had argued the case of “The People v. Davidson” for the last time.
After four trials, the team placed 13th of 34 teams, winning the second (prosecution) and fourth (defense) trials but losing the first (defense) and third (prosecution) against Dos Pueblos High School (the 2015 state champion and this year’s ninth-place winner) and Redlands High School (the 2016 state champion and eighth-place winner), respectively.
Yet, according to many team members, they were happy nonetheless.
Prosecuting attorney junior Mehdi Lacombe and fellow junior and expert witness Blake Lincoln both said that the team was there to “gain experience” and enjoy themselves and that they weren’t as “tense” as opposing teams were.
“We didn’t care about the outcome of the competition as much,” Lacombe said. “It wasn’t stressful; the competitive trials were (actually) a lot of fun.”
Although the team as a whole was relatively stress-free, there was a major stressor hanging in the Orange County air: the defense pre-trialer, sophomore Héloïse Schep, couldn’t make it to competition.
So Lincoln, the pre-trialer for the prosecution and expert witness for both sides, took up her case merely weeks before the competition day.
“I had a nervous breakdown,” Lincoln said. “I hadn’t had defense pre-trial since December, but even then I never had a set defense pre-trial argument, and most teams come to states with a prepared written script – I didn’t have that at all.”
The pre-trial involved whether or not the judge would let in GPS information taken from the suspect, Casey Davidson’s, car and involved the 1983 “U.S. v. Knotts” case, which ruled that such surveillance was not against the Fourth Amendment.
Lincoln said that the secret to executing the pre-trial was “thinking on (his) feet” and appealing to the judge.
“Some (judges) want to hear the policy of government intervention into people’s lives; others like to hear a rebuttal to the Knotts Supreme Court case,” he said. “But depending on the judge, you have to find ways to get him on your side.”
According to both Lacombe and coach Rick Lewkowitz, this ability to improvise is one of the team’s greatest areas of improvement.
“One mistake that the younger members of the team made was not reading the judge,” Lacombe said.
He gave the example of the first judge who repeatedly upheld “non-responsive objections” (objections made by the other team because the opposing team’s witness is circumnavigating questions).
Lacombe said that instead of continuing to over-testify, switching to yes-or-no answers would have prevented them from being subject to objections.
Lewkowitz agreed, emphasizing the importance of creativity beyond the script.
“They can’t just know the lines and practice – they have (to have) innovative ways of surprising (their opponents), impromptu stuff,” he said.
“That’s what top teams do. Their philosophy isn’t how good you prepare. Coaches, regardless of their intellect, can’t prepare students for every scenario, so the kids have to think for themselves.”
That’s not saying that the team doesn’t already.
In fact, in their third round against Redlands High School, co-captain junior Jack Christian suggested a rule violation – something the team hasn’t done all season.
Lewkowitz said that both he and Christian noticed that the other team had been directly addressing scorers; the official Constitutional Rights Foundation rules mandate that only the judge is to be addressed because talking directly to scorers can give a slight emotive and persuasive advantage.
Although the judge accepted that violation, Redlands lost no points for their infraction..
In fact, some of the scoring attorneys even said that Country Day shouldn’t have mentioned it because it was “petty” to do so.
The last trial, though, was Country Day’s glorious swan song of the season; according to Lewkowitz and Graves, this trial had the strongest performances of the season.
Co-captain junior Gabi Alvarado and Lincoln were the only members to receive perfect scores for their respective closing argument and expert witness performance.
According to Graves, Alvarado’s closing was “unstoppable” and “passionate.”
“Her closing argument was so persuasive and flawlessly executed that the judge, who had seen the trial at least 20 times, said he was completely moved,” Graves said.
“He had never heard the evidence presented in such a compelling light.”
Lewkowitz added that judges weren’t impressed with Alvarado as only as an attorney but also as a witness.
“They commented on how brilliant she was and said they were able to know that she was an attorney on the other side because of how articulate and personable she was,” Lewkowitz said.
According to Lewkowitz, freshman Ming Zhu also received special praise while acting as the courtroom clerk, with one judge saying that he was the best clerk she’d seen in years.
“Instead of saying the defense has so much time left, he also knew who the next attorney was for both sides, and he would say their name and tell them personally how much time they have,” Lewkowitz said.
He added that Zhu learned this skill after observing another team during a county trial.
Zhu’s clerk skills weren’t the only improvements the team has made since September.
According to Graves, it was their teamwork that improved the most.
“(They now have) incredible team bonding,” she said. “At the beginning of the season, they were a bunch of kids from different grades with different backgrounds, areas of interest and skill levels.
“At the end of the season, they were a true team – they trusted and supported one another.”
Christian agreed, adding that many of the team members were novices at the start of the season.
“The majority of our team had never done Mock Trial before, but we overcame this by putting in countless hours of practice and undergoing many scrimmages,” he said.
“By the time of the county competition, our team was near perfection.”
Furthermore, Lewkowitz said, not all the lessons learned this season were about concurrent arguments, forming objections, and crafting closing and opening statements. Some were specific to the case itself.
This case, which is about a political rally turned violent, was released within days of the Charlottesville attacks in August, something Lewkowitz repeatedly noted as “freaky.”
“There are many similarities with what happened in Charlottesville and the fictional murder: two different groups with political differences, someone gets killed – and the political difference is the presumed motive,” he said.
“In both of them, the crime is taking (a) life over a difference in opinion. Any murder is a waste of life, but over a difference in political views – really?
“That’s what I will remember, and I assume (the team) will as well.”
Although the trial of “The People v. Davidson” was adjourned indefinitely, the team still has work to be done in preparation for next year.
Christian said that the team will need to improve on their courtroom presence and their reactions to unexpected situations.
“At states, things did not always go as planned,” Christian said. “Learning how to work on the fly will help us improve and, hopefully, allow us to make it to states again and place in the top eight.”
The next CRF Mock Trial case information packet will be released in August.
—By Chardonnay Needler