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Judicial review: Mock trial competition to simulate court experience

Photo by Michael Buckelew

Photo by Michael Buckelew

COVINGTON -- Dozens of high school students and area attorneys will take over the Newton County Judicial Center this weekend, but nobody is in trouble.

Groups of students from Newton County's three high schools, as well as three high schools from Fayette County, will contend against one another in the county's first regional mock trial competition on Saturday.

"Several judges have wanted the program here for a while," said Shannon Sneed, an attorney coach.

Buck Levins, regional coordinator of the competition and president of the Newton County Bar Association, and local government teachers and attorneys qualified schools with the state Bar Association. They started recruiting students and forming teams to prepare for the competition near the start of the school year.

"This was real positive and a meaningful way for (local attorneys) and the bar association to begin work on a project," Levins said. "It's a great demonstration of willingness and getting involved to support young people."

Since then, students have met with teachers and local attorneys to learn more about cases and what goes on in the courtroom, and for a few weeks, they've held practice sessions at their schools and most recently at the Newton County Judicial Center.

"The students review a criminal case, including affidavits and associated evidence," said Newton High School teacher sponsor Aaron Robinson. "The format is realistic, and the case is somewhat ambiguous in terms of who may or may not be guilty, but the students are able to work on arguments for their side of the case ... and develop the means to persuade a simulated jury."

Several local attorneys are coaching the teams, and attorneys from metro Atlanta will serve as a jury on the competition day.

"We basically educate them and let them go," Sneed said, adding that students are developing their own questions, writing opening and closing arguments and using other techniques to win their cases.

Robinson said the mock trial program has helped students with analytical thinking and public speaking and gives them a chance to turn learning into practical and productive use. Eastside teacher sponsor Bart Buff said it also helps increase the students' self-confidence and gives them a place to collaborate as a team and learn interpersonal skills.

"I'm basically a government and history nerd and it sounded like fun," said J.T. Blaker, a senior at Eastside, about joining the team. "There is no way to describe the way you can understand it when you are sort of doing it."

The teams at each Newton County high school are made up of about a dozen students from all grade levels.

"This is an amazing opportunity that has finally been brought here," said Shannon Sneed's son Andrew, a freshman at Eastside. "You learn so much about law and what really goes on in the court room. Sometimes you see it on TV, but you don't really understand what's going on."

At the competition Saturday, which runs from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., groups will compete against each other in three rounds defending or prosecuting a mock case about a fight at a graduation party during which a student pulled a knife on another student.

"Students develop what natural talents they might already possess when it comes to thinking, speaking and performing," Robinson said. "The guidelines of the law give it a practical direction that is invaluable to any citizen. I hope it gives them some insight to what they might accomplish in the future in their own respective future goals."

Groups will earn points and move on based on their presentation, prosecution, objections and other aspects of a court case.

"The main thing we want is that they have fun and learn about the judicial system and how it works," Shannon Sneed said. "If the kids show up and compete, we win."

The mock trial is open to the public, but all guests must check in at the grand jury room on the third floor and may be limited to the various trials they can attend to prevent any sharing of trial information to other teams.

The program will conclude with an awards ceremony, and the winning group will move on to the next round of competitions later in the school year.

Schools and attorneys hope to continue the program next school year and continue having the teams learn and grow each year; some students also hope to attend a trial program at the University of Georgia in the fall.