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High school teams to take their cases to Butler courthouse

| Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Moniteau High School mock trial team poses for a group photo in the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning in Oakland during the university’s annual high school mock trial invitational tournament on Jan. 10. From top left: Zac Marino, Lindsey Cozad, Austin Blauser, Michaela Mrozek, Dakota Giebel, Kiersten Fencil, Tyler Hougg, Kristin McDeavitt, Taylor Christy, Alexis Allen and Melanie Pearce.

Presenting a case in court is challenging, takes countless hours of preparation and research — and it's also a lot of fun, say high school mock trial students.

“You need to be able to think on your feet pretty fast,” said Moniteau High School senior Zac Marino, whose two older brothers competed in mock trials before him.

“You have to be confident with what you're saying,” said Lindsey Cozad, a senior at Moniteau. “You can't be shy.”

Mock trial teams from Moniteau High School, Freeport Area High School, Butler Area High School and Seneca Valley Senior and Intermediate High Schools will compete against each other at the Pennsylvania Bar Association Young Lawyers Division's Butler County mock trial competition on Feb. 11 and 12 in the Butler County Courthouse.

The county competition is hosted by the Butler County Bar Association, and is the first step in a statewide mock trial competition. District, regional and state champion competitions will follow.

During the competition, each 12-member student team argues a case in a courtroom before a judge. Local lawyers and community leaders serve on the jury and score students on things like poise, articulation, realism, control and effectiveness.

The students play the roles of lawyers, witnesses, plaintiffs and defendants. The student lawyers must prepare for a case the way a real lawyer would, writing an opening statement, synthesizing arguments, and finding strengths and weaknesses to the case, said Moniteau coach Sean Morrow. The students also are expected to learn courtroom etiquette and procedures, like those regarding evidence, direct and cross examinations and objections.

“The kids generally know the courtroom procedures and know it better than some lawyers because they're very careful about it,” Morrow said.

Playing a plaintiff, defendant or witness requires students to thoroughly learn the character they'll be playing.

“You need to have emotion on command, especially if you're playing a witness,” said Moniteau senior Kiersten Fencil.

Each team has a teacher coach and a lawyer adviser to help students prepare the case, although the coaches from Butler County schools said their students do most of the work, devoting hours of time after school to preparations.

“Sometimes I sit back and smile, watching their wheels turn, watching their strategies,” said Dale Wagner, coach for the Seneca Valley Senior High team. “The reason I don't like to give too much input is I want it to be their case, not my case.”

The team from Butler Area High School has won the county competition for the last five years, said Butler mock trial coach John Lesjack, a social studies teacher at Butler Intermediate High School. The winner from the county competition will move on to the district level and face teams from Armstrong, Beaver and Lawrence counties.

Morrow said he's had two students become lawyers. Wagner said he's also had a few students become lawyers. One former student, Lesjack, started the mock trial program at Butler Area High School.

This year's hypothetical case is a civil trial to determine if a parent or high school track coach is liable for the death of a student-athlete who was taking performance-enhancing drugs. The high school coaches said their students were able to connect and relate to the case.

“It's a topic that kids are familiar with and can wrap their heads around,” Lesjack said. “We have a lot of kids that are athletes and that makes a lot of sense to them.”

Rachel Farkas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-779-6902 or rfarkas@tribweb.com.

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