Seneca Valley students get realistic taste of courtroom action

| Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, 9:02 p.m.

“Overworked. Overlooked. Over the limit”

These were key phrases for Prosecuting Attorney Christopher Wirth's closing argument during the mock trial held at Seneca Valley High School last week.

“His trial is over,” Wirth concluded, inviting the jury to render a verdict in his favor in the Commonwealth v Tatum Zillias case.

The jury would deliberate the guilt or innocence for Zillias, a Philadelphia real estate developer, who was charged with third-degree murder as he coordinated the work on his building project. His decision to place solar and wind-turbine panels on the roof while the waning winds of Hurricane Isaac blew in August 2012 ultimately destroyed the largest crane on the East Coast and killed two people, a squatter who was living on the site and a federal construction official.

There were no high-priced lawyers, diligent media or pickets decrying the displacement of the homeless here. Instead, disciplined, prepared students from Alison Schuster's mock trial class stood eager to test their understanding of the law before retired Superior Court Judge Maureen Lally-Green, who held court in the high school library.

“After his closing, I was nervous,” said Brandon McCormick, defense attorney.

“I thought we lost.”

While Wirth, a 17-year-old senior, took three hours to write his closing, McCormick needn't have been anxious. The jury's decision was unanimous: Zillias, his client, was found not guilty.

The verdict didn't dampen the prosecution's enthusiasm for the process. All six — Jennifer Hutchinson, Ben Hodges, Zach Bredle, Ally Sanderbeck, Matt Darby and Wirth — had an esprit de corps going into the project.

“We had great chemistry,” said Hodges.

“We work well together,” Hutchinson added. “We're friends. Everybody had a part in everybody's part.”

As the jury considered the finer points of the arguments, Lally-Green spoke to the students who had spent weeks developing their strategies and witness questions. They had used time in and out of the classroom to bring their best efforts to the mock trial experience.

“You should all think about the law,” the judge told them.

“You have great talent.”

She pointed out individual performances.

“Kudos to the witnesses, and prosecution, nicely done,” she said.

“Your objections were good. You came away from your paper,” she said of the attorneys as they addressed the jury.“It's better when it comes from the heart and memory.”

Lally-Green also applauded the work of the defense because the team “brought out the humanness of your clients.”

Both sides were pleased with the judge's comments and their work, which began when Schuster spent a week teaching them the law behind the case, decorum and rules of evidence.

After they got the trial packet that contained the charges, witness statements and exhibits, the students set out to develop their own trial strategies.

“It was a really good experience, a lot of preparation and hard work,” said McCormick, 18, of Zelienople.

“It showed what's required to be a lawyer.”

During the trial, Schuster brought her two careers together. Years ago, while volunteering with juveniles as a practicing attorney, she realized her love of working with teens. A teaching certificate soon followed.

“I love the law and being an attorney,” she said, “but I can do more as a teacher.”

The mock trial accomplishes far more than inspiring some high school seniors to consider a law career — although Wirth and Josh Fried of the defense team have expressed an interest.

“They need to become critical thinkers in their professions,” Schuster, 40, of Harmony, said.

“In life, they need to communicate effectively. I hope to give them an edge.”

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or

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