Local high schoolers match legal know-how in mock trial

Last modified: Tuesday, February 19, 2013
NORTHAMPTON — The trial Monday afternoon in Hampshire Superior Court had all of the lurid trappings any fan of legal drama could ask for.

A frail multimillionaire died under mysterious circumstances just as she was contemplating changes to her will that would have significantly reduced the bequests to her heirs, one of whom was implicated in her death.

The trial had everything — except real-world consequences, that is.

Based on a real case, the scenario was the backdrop for Monday’s mock trial showdown between teams from the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School and Granby High School.

At the end of the competition, PVPA managed to out-litigate Granby and moves ahead to compete for state honors.

Sponsored by the Massachusetts Bar Association, the competition requires students to take on the roles of lawyers and witnesses, present evidence, perform direct and cross examinations, and offer testimony.

All proceedings, though controlled, are run using standard courtroom procedure and rules of evidence.

Once the trial begins, students are on their own, with no coaching allowed, said Gary Hugget, PVPA’s director of history and mock trial team coach.

Even though members of the team are still in high school and without legal training, they still perform better and more appropriately than most television lawyers, Hugget said.

Todd Dorman, the Granby team’s coach and a history and government teacher, said his team was disappointed by the outcome but were satisfied knowing they’d improved since a loss in an earlier round.

Being successful in a mock trial, Dorman said, means combining theatrical talent, debate skills, public speaking prowess and the ability to think on one’s feet.

Just as in real trials, lawyers on either side can object to testimony if they feel it is straying into hearsay or if an attorney is leading a witness toward a desired answer.

Northampton attorney James Winston presided over the trial in the role of judge and ultimately decided that PVPA’s team had successfully defended its client.

PVPA had to cast doubt on Granby’s assertion that the grand-niece of the frail multimillionaire poisoned her after learning her expected inheritance would be cut in half.

PVPA raised doubt that the defendant was responsible, arguing that the victim’s death could have been from natural causes, an accident with medication or side effects of a particular type of herbal tea.

Students were scored based on how well they performed each aspect of the trial, including opening and closing statements and the effectiveness of the testimony.

Each student was given instructions explaining his or her role or outlining the testimony he or she was to give. Students are not allowed to step outside of these parameters without incurring a penalty, Hugget said.

The scoring is one area of the mock trial that vastly differs from actual court proceedings. There is no chance for appeal and all scores are final.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.