Students learn law and order

Published 7:00 am Saturday, January 28, 2017

By Melanie Ruberti

 LaGRANGE – There were some new, fresh faces seated behind the state and defense attorney’s tables on Wednesday inside a Troup County Superior Courtroom.

These lawyers did not pass the bar exam; in fact, these attorneys’ have not yet graduated high school.

The teens are part of the inaugural LaGrange High School Mock Trial team. On Saturday, the group will square off against several area schools in their first mock trial competition.

“I feel like we’re prepared for it and we have a good chance at winning it,” said LHS senior, Elizabeth Burch. “But I am a little nervous because I’ve never done this before.”

The team is comprised of students from all grade levels. Some were part of the LHS debate team.

This year, teacher supervisors Assistant Principal Jamie Bozeman and Darren Gravat decided to raise the bar after receiving a call from Senior Assistant District Attorney Melissa Himes with the Troup County District Attorney’s office.

“Jim (Powers, Assistant District Attorney) and I were discussing community involvement opportunities in LaGrange one day and the idea of a high school mock trial team materialized,” Himes explained. “Jim and I both enjoy being trial attorneys and thought it would be fun to work with students interested in the legal field. We contacted Tyler Moffitt, a private criminal justice attorney and LaGrange High School graduate. He was on board with the idea.”

“The idea took off like crazy,” said Bozeman. “It’s a big commitment. The students practice sometimes four times a week, but their enthusiasm is great.”

Himes, Powers and Moffitt met with the team twice a week beginning in August and initially taught them courtroom procedures and etiquette, stated Himes.

“We then moved into the basics of litigation including civil and criminal practice,” she explained. “We finally began teaching the rules of evidence. This was quite tricky because law students spend hours and hours trying to grasp these rules, and then continue as lawyers to research and study evidentiary issues throughout their careers.”

The Mock Trial program is run by the State Bar of Georgia, Himes said. In mid-October, the legal organization released a mock trial case for the upcoming competition. The students started studying witness statements, reviewing evidence in the case and developing theories.

The teens also had to audition for their “roles” in the case, including: the plaintiff’s attorneys, defense attorneys and expert witnesses.

Meeting just two days a week suddenly jumped to four days as the students practiced strategies and new legal knowledge as they prepared for the competition.

“At first it was really tedious as we were learning all the rules,” said student Tony Choi, an “attorney” for the plaintiff. “Then we got the case and it was fun because the attorneys were helping us. It was fun to see how the case all worked out.”

“We are a really tight group,” stated student Erin Lee, a “witness” for the defense. “It’s been cool to collaborate with everyone and watch the case come together.”

On Wednesday, the LHS Mock Trial Team also experienced trying their case before a judge and jury inside a courtroom at the Troup County Government Center. The Judge was Chief Assistant District Attorney Monique Kirby; the jury was the teen’s coaches: Himes, Powers, Moffitt and Bozeman.

Pete Skandalakis, District Attorney for the Coweta Judicial Circuit, briefly stopped in to encourage the students. Parents were also allowed to watch from the courtroom gallery.

For many seniors on the team, the Mock Trial program gave them more insight into the legal system – and future careers.

“The experience has given me a good understanding of why I want to become a lawyer,” said LHS senior Jonathan Fagundes. “It has also showed me what it will be like when I get out of law school and start practicing law.”

“I am looking into majoring in political science and eventually go to law school,” stated senior Briya Todd. “I used the mock trial team as a stepping stone to see if this was an environment I really wanted to be in. I decided it is.”

All three attorneys said they have enjoyed mentoring the LaGrange High School Mock Trial Team.

“It is amazing to see how much the students have improved since last September,” Himes said. “Their competence and confidence continues to grow with each practice session. It is so fun to watch the student witnesses develop convincing and entertaining characters. As for the student lawyers, they have become professional, passionate advocates for their clients …”

The Mock Trial Regional Competition will be held at the Coweta County Justice Center (courthouse) in Newnan this Saturday.

Round one of the event begins at 9 a.m., round two starts at 1 p.m. and the championship round will begin at 4 p.m.

The top three teams will move on to the Mock Trial District Competition in February.

Melanie Ruberti is a reporter with LaGrange Daily News. She can be reached at 706-884-7311, ext. 2156.