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Penn-Trafford High School mock-trial team readies for criminal case

| Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, 10:14 p.m.
(c) 2012 Lillian DeDomenic
The defense attorneys for the Penn-Trafford High School Mock Trial Team -- Bridget Ruschak, left, Mary Taylor and Nicholas D. Fisfis -- work on their opening and closing statements. Lillian DeDomenic | For The Penn-Trafford Star
(c) 2012 Lillian DeDomenic
Nick Ciccotelli, left, Mike Zula and Sabrina Simmers are among the main witnesses in the case, which involves a third-degree murder charge. Lillian DeDomenic | For The Penn-Trafford Star
(c) 2012 Lillian DeDomenic
Before the prosecution rests, Laurel Hilliker, left, Jonah Graffius and Grant Smith will press its case that the defendant neglected safety at a construction site to ensure a $10-million bonus. Lillian DeDomenic | For The Penn-Trafford Star

To the prosecution, this “murder” case all comes down to $10 million.

Since November, Penn-Trafford High School mock-trial team members Laurel Hilliker, Jonah Graffius and Grant Smith have been refining their arguments to convict Tatum Zillias of a double murder.

The trio contends that Zillias was rushing the completion of an urban-renewal construction project in Philadelphia to collect a multimillion-dollar bonus.

But the project came to a halt after hurricane-level winds felled a construction crane, killing a homeless man and a federal construction official.

Laurel, Jonah and Grant will present their case at the Westmoreland County Courthouse on Feb. 6 during the team's regional match in the annual mock trial competition, which is sponsored by the Young Lawyers Division of the Pennsylvania Bar Association.

The case is a change of pace from the civil mock trials of the past two years, said Laurel, a junior.

“It's just more engaging,” she said. “In a criminal case, you have more drama. In civil, it's just money.

“You're dealing with loss of life, and Tatum is an unscrupulous person.”

Of course, that's just the state's side of the case.

Defense attorneys Nicholas Fisfis, Bridget Ruschak and Mary Taylor are quick to note what they claim is an inspector's grudge against Zillias and credibility issues for the former site supervisor who worked with Zillias.

Nicholas, whose father and grandfather are attorneys, certainly sounds like a lot of defense attorneys who speak up for their clients.

“Our big idea is just that there are a lot of factors that came into play,” he said.

“It's just an unfortunate series of events that caused the deaths of two people.”

The students have met twice a week for about three hours an afternoon to prepare for competitions, said Christina Wukich, team sponsor and coordinator of the high school gifted program.

They've studied a 69-page packet of invented court documents and received tutelage from retired attorney Steve Fulton of Level Green.

Earlier this month, the team finished fifth among 30 in a tournament at the University of Pittsburgh, winning three of its four matches, Wukich said.

In some cases, the students plan on using the mock-trial experience to propel them toward a career in law.

Bridget, a senior who won the “best advocate” award at the Pitt tournament, said she's known that she wanted to be an attorney since she was 10.

“I call it my sport,” she said.

“We play against other teams, so it's an intellectual sport.”

Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400 ext. 8671 or

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