High school students get full court room experience from the perspective of the attorneys at mock trial competition

Hannah Swayze • Updated Feb 17, 2018 at 11:20 PM

As two protests create conflict in a fictional Tennessee city, a young law student gets carried away and tries to tear down a statue, hurting himself in the process.

He claims the city was negligent and responsible for his injuries.

That’s the civil case area students argued for — and against — at the district's 2018 high school Mock Trial Competition Saturday at the George Jaynes Justice Center in Jonesborough.

Six teams from local high schools have been practicing since the Tennessee Bar Association released the competition "problem" in November.

"We have two or three practices each week starting late December/early January, and those practices are three and four hours long in the courthouse," said Unicoi County High School senior Elizabeth Sutphin, a member of the school’s varsity mock trial team.

Sutphin say that it's a lot of hard work and lots of practice, but worth it. The most difficult part is learning to think on your feet, because while arguments can be written and prepared, she says that, like life, the course of the trial can change, depending on many factors.

This is her third year competing in mock trial.

"I'm a very busy person and I do a lot of extracurriculars but this is by far the most beneficial organization I've been a part of," said Sutphin. "I was a little nervous at first, but now I've decided I want to go to law school."

After months of preparing to argue both sides, teams are placed in front of a "jury" of judges made up of attorneys and other community members with experience in law. Throughout several rounds teams much present a full case for both sides. Every section of the trial is timed for competition’s sake.

"They have to be completely versed on all the rules of evidence, they have to stand up and present just like we would in a normal trial. An opening, a closing, direct and cross their witnesses. And their students play the witnesses, too, so there's drama in it," said Assistant District Attorney Erin MdArdle, an organizer of the tournament.

To help the students, local attorneys help coach them through practices and dress rehearsals.

One judge, Jeff Miles, who is an attorney who has coached mock trial teams for about 18 years, said this is a challenge that teaches skills that help them succeed in life.

"I think that the mock trial program is wonderful. I can't even count the number of kids who I have coached who have gone on to either become lawyers or been very successful in other chosen professions. It seems that this is a real launching pad for kids who are on their way to four-year college,” said Miles.

At the end of the day, Sutphin’s Unicoi County High School team came out on top and will go to state competition in March. Second and third place were awarded to Science Hill and Dobyns-Bennett high schools.

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