A civil trial over the death of a young high school track and field athlete got underway in Erie County Court. But in this case, the entire legal team was comprised of high school students participating in the Pennsylvania Bar Association's Mock Trials competition.
Lisa Adams of our news team spent time with McDowell High School's mock trial team, as they prepared and shared a little pizza before heading to a real courtroom. They faced a formidable team from Youngsville High.
This year's case is a civil proceeding about a fictitious high school track star, with Olympic dreams, who died from taking performance enhancing drugs. Her mother is suing the school.
Students play the roles of plaintiffs, defendants, attorneys and witnesses. In the process they gain speaking skills and learn a lot about team work.
McDowell Mock Trial Team President Alex Patton got involved last year as a way to evaluate the idea of a career in law. Even though he will choose a different path, he found that participating in mock trials teaches valuable lessons. He is serving as a defense attorney on this year's team. "It's a team effort," said Patton. "Normally in a trial one attorney asks all the questions and opens and closes but we have three attorneys on our team, we all have to be able to work together to have a cohesive case."
Izabella Czejdo is playing the role of the plaintiff in this case, the mother of the track star. As a witness she has a chance to employ some of her drama skills. But she's learning about the law too. "As a witness, I get to learn about things that the lawyers would do too, just being there, so it gives me an opportunity to learn about everything, you know, with law...in a more relaxed setting."
Lawyers and judges from the Erie County Bar Association play a key role too. They volunteer to serve as judge, time keepers and jurors, who essentially judge the competition.
Some lawyers are involved in coaching teams as well. Former prosecutor, now Judge Bob Sambroak has been coaching the McDowell team for 4 years and he wants to continue coaching because in his words, "the kids are the best, they work hard, they're smart, they do what they're asked to do and you can really see their improvement."
What the coaches are teaching is far more than the facts of the case. "We try to teach them not to panic, how to speak on their feet, how to think on their feet, how to speak better, how to organize their thoughts and how to be persuasive," said Sambroak.
And the lessons learned, could lead some students back to the courtroom as a real attorney someday. "Absolutely, without question, without question," said Sambroak. "I'm not going to mention any names and put the pressure on, but absolutely some talent out there."
Some trials were delayed by school closings. The teams that advance to regionals have a shot at state or even national mock trials competition.