Budding lawyers prep for mock trial tournament

Syeda Ferguson, Times Herald 8:15 p.m. EST January 31, 2016


Memphis High School mock trial students experienced some culture shock on Tuesday sitting in on the murder trial of 5-year-old Mackenzie Maison at 72nd District Circuit Court.

The parents, Hilery and Andrew Maison, of Port Huron, were found guilty Friday on all counts of felony murder in Mackenzie’s death and first-degree child abuse and torture of Mackenzie and her 3-year-old sister, Makayla.

Memphis High School mock trial team defense attorney Jacob Walsh, 17, concentrates while sitting with Justin Rabine, 17, and Hannah Fisher, 15, during a mock trial Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016 at the St. Clair County Courthouse in Port Huron.  JEFFREY M. SMITH, TIMES HERALD


“The students had mixed emotions about it. They were excited to come up (and view the trial) but with such a horrible case and it being real, and not mock or pretend, I think it’s really affecting them. They’re pretty upset about it but they’re enjoying watching the legal system at work,” Memphis mock trial teacher coach Sheryl Leaver said.

“I thought it was excellent. Watching (senior assistant prosecutor) Mona Armstrong, she’s just phenomenal, and watching the witness on the stand and cross-examinations. That’s all the stuff they have to do in mock trial.”

Memphis is one of 10 high schools preparing for the 2016 St. Clair County Bar Association High School Mock Trial Tournament Feb. 27 in Port Huron. Mock trial program chairwoman Judge Cynthia Platzer has opened the courthouse for students to hold their practices in actual courtrooms that are not in session. Several schools this year are taking Platzer up on her offer.

Seventeen-year-old Justin Rabine was among three teams of Memphis students who practiced their upcoming case in an unused courtroom during a break in the Maison trial. Standing at the podium in his dark suit and tie, he skillfully handled cross-examination of expert witnesses.

Assistant prosecuting attorney Paul Soderberg, the attorney coach for Memphis this year, provided some direction to Justin and his teammates on things such as how to behave in front of the jury and how to have evidence admitted.

“I think it’s fantastic,” Soderberg said of the program. He volunteered to step in for prosecuting attorney Mike Wendling to coach Memphis this year. “I know Sheryl Leaver is doing a great job with them and our assistant coach. They’re doing the brunt of the work and I get to kind of come in and throw around some more experiences and try to give them perspective on certain things.

“You can see them picking up confidence through this whole process. They’ve been doing it in their classrooms but when you get them into the arena (of the courtroom) the seriousness and the competitive juices start flowing. It’s a lot of fun,” Soderberg said.

Justin is one of three team leaders on the Memphis team. He will be giving the opening statement and conduct the direct  and cross examinations of witnesses.

“I feel like it’s going good. This is really in my element,” Justin said during a break. Along with mock trial, Justin also is a member of the National Honor Society, the school marching and concert bands, and plays on the high school baseball team. He plans to study corporate law after college.
Team member Abby Lamberson, 15, a sophomore, said the field trip and practice at the courthouse helped her feel more confident about her upcoming performance as a witness.

“I’ve also learned a lot about the court system, like when you can make an objection, things like that. Just all kinds of stuff. There’s so much to learn,” said Abby, who also is color guard co-captain and is studying dance.

In its 11th year, the program last year was recognized by the Michigan Bar Association. Organizers say program interest from area high schools has grown since the award. The program is free for all high schools. Attorneys, coaches, judges, bailiffs and other court staff involved in preparing for and running the competition volunteer their time.

This year there were ten high schools with 17 teams that said they were interested in taking part in the mock trial competition, one more team than the courthouse can actually accommodate, Platzer said in an email.

She attributed the increase in student participation to their teacher coaches.

“If we have teachers who are engaged with their students and make the process fun, the students will learn; the same may be said for any classroom environment,” Platzer said.

Other high schools that will be competing this year are Anchor Bay, Capac, Cardinal Mooney, Marine City, Marysville, Port Huron High, Port Huron Northern, St. Clair and Yale.

The team to beat this year is Cardinal Mooney, which will be taking two teams to the county competition and to regionals in Oakland the weekend after that. Mooney’s A team was the overall winner last year and individual students were recognized in the award’s ceremony as well, teacher coach James Kelley said.

“We want to continue our momentum we’ve been building in recent years. There are a lot of experienced students returning, this will be their third year. We have very high hopes for both teams,” Kelley said. “It’s just an exciting thing we’re building here and we’re looking forward to going and defending that trophy again this year.”

Mooney will be taking its teams to the county courthouse the second week of February to practice for the tournament. It will be their first time outside of the classroom.

“We’re making use of the courtroom to get more of an authentic feel for the practice. It’s always good to get into that courtroom and get practice rounds in the actual setting and calm the nerves and things like that. We have not utilized that opportunity in years past,” said Kelley, who is in his third year of coaching.

Kelley this year is teaching a law class whose title was changed to “Forensics Mock Trial,” in which role playing and other elements of mock trial were added to the curriculum. Mooney’s attorney coach is county assistant prosecutor Steve Guilliat, whose daughter attends the school.

“He’s a phenomenal asset,” Kelley said of Guilliat. “We are very blessed to have one of the top lawyers here in the area really crafting and helping polish these performances.”

Port Huron Northern this year is reporting the largest student interest to date for the program, coach and social studies teacher Dayna DesJardins said. She attributed the increase to a combination of interest in being a part of the after-school club and learning about law in a challenging and interactive way.

“I’ve been impressed with the teams’ ability to critically think about the case and notice tiny details, to see them gain confidence in their speaking ability and fine tune their line of questioning,” DesJardins said. The teams are divided into blue and gold. Both will be participating in the county-wide competition. DesJardins said she and assistant coach Erik Poole, along with Northern’s attorney coach John Livesay, will have the teams practice their full court case in the courthouse once they get their opening statements down.

Capac High School has three teams competing this year, or about 25-30 students. Coach Steve Sampson, an English teacher, in past years offered an elective class he designed that was closely tailored to the mock trial program. The class was called, “Introduction to Argumentation, Debate and Mock Trial.” This year Capac students are planning to compete in the regionals in Mount Clemens on March 5. Capac’s attorney coach is Matt Lozen and its assistant coach is Savanna Grewe, a mock trial alumnus.

“The Mock Trial process is a labor of love for our coaches.  All teacher and lawyer coaches devote countless hours of teaching and practice time, but we shouldn't forget that the process is also incredibly labor intensive for the students,” said Platzer.

Contact Syeda Ferguson at (810) 989-6276 or email her at syeda@thetimesherald.com. Follow her on Twitter@shossainfe. 

                    What: 2016 St. Clair County High School Mock Trial Tournament

                    When: Saturday, Feb. 27. Round One beginning at 8:30 a.m. Round Two at 10:30 a.m. Round Three at 1:30 p.m. Awards ceremony at 5 p.m.

                    Where: Competitions to be held at St. Clair County Courthouse, 201 McMorran Boulevard, Port Huron. Award ceremony to be held at St. Clair County Community College Center café

                    The event is open to the public. Admission is free. For more information go to www.sc2mocktrial.org