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Front Page - Friday, March 8, 2019

Not the usual suspects

New teams challenge old powers in revamped mock trial competition

Like the New England Patriots under Tom Brady or the Yankees and Lakers of old, many of the same high school mock trial teams emerge victorious each year at Hamilton County’s annual competition.

McCallie School, Signal Mountain and CSTHEA (Chattanooga Southeast Tennessee Home Education Association) are regulars in the state competition, with McCallie advancing to nationals in 1994.

But 2019 saw new contenders enter the fray. Although too green to topple teams sharpened by experience, Tyner Academy, Hixson High School, Chattanooga School for the Arts & Sciences and STEM School Chattanooga were the Predators, Texans and Diamondbacks of high school mock trial, joining an established field of competitors and making a name for themselves.

These students wowed the members of the local bar who served as the competition’s judges, jurors and coaches.

“You did an excellent job. I was impressed with your poise and preparation,” gushed Circuit Court Judge Jeff Hollingsworth after presiding over a match between Tyner and Hixson.

Audrey Dolmovich, a local disability attorney, went a step further after serving as a juror at the same contest. “My college mock trial coach would want to be here to see this. He’d be recruiting you.”

Other newcomers tallied victories of their own. After taking over the competition, the Chattanooga Bar Association turned this year’s event into one of the largest in local history with 20 teams, 150-plus students and more than 100 lawyers and judges volunteering in various roles.

It might not have been the Super Bowl, but as students, coaches and volunteers filled the atrium of the City Courts building on Feb. 21 for the opening assembly, the air was similarly electric.

“Breathe in through your nose and then out through your mouth,” the competition’s spearhead, General Sessions Judge Alex McVeagh, said to the room as he took the microphone. “I know you’re nervous, but you can relax. You’re going to have fun tonight.”

That moment was not the beginning of the journey for those present but the culmination of several months of persistent work that began with McVeagh asking the CBA a single question.

CBA takes over

Mock trial competitions aim to give students a fuller understanding of the U.S. judicial system by allowing them to experience the legal process firsthand, reads the Tennessee Bar Association website. By roleplaying as attorneys and witnesses, students develop an awareness of the mechanism Americans use to resolve their disputes.

Historically, members of the TBA’s Young Lawyers Division have organized and run the local competition. But as bar associations in larger districts, including Memphis and Nashville, began running successful mock trial events on their own, McVeagh started to believe Chattanooga could do it, too.

While participation in mock trial has been consistent in Hamilton County, it has proceeded without the involvement of many public and private schools. Students who would have joined the program if given the opportunity were therefore not reaping its benefits.

The advantages of participating in mock trial are many, McVeagh says, the most important being inspiration to consider a career in the law.

“Some amazing people have taken part in this competition and then gone on to become lawyers. A lot of mock trial alumni in Hamilton County are now members of the local bar,” the judge says.

Attorney Nathan Kinard of Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel can trace his career directly to his decision to join a homeschool mock trial team.

“I learned that what a lawyer does is intoxicating,” he says. “Analyzing the applicable law, using every available tool to construe the facts in your favor and then convincingly presenting it all to the judge or jury. I loved it in high school and I love it every day as a practicing attorney.

“I could probably come up with a list of 10 specific lessons I learned, or started to learn, in high school mock trial that I apply today.”

Senior U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier, who served as honorary chair of this year’s local competition, echoes McVeagh and suggests the consequences for limiting the availability of mock trial locally could be tragic.

“Talent does not reside in certain locations or schools; talent is everywhere,” Collier says. “And it might be that we have the next Clarence Darrow in a school that has never participated in mock trial. But our kids won’t know where their talents lie unless they have a chance to demonstrate them.”

Mock trial also offers students who do not want to become a lawyer, or who join a team as a witness, benefits that can be applied to other professions, McVeagh says. These include learning to think and act quickly, building persuasive arguments, overcoming nerves when speaking in public and more.

The judge also says mock trials have the ability to purge a young person’s negative thoughts about the legal profession.

“Mock trial is a great opportunity to show students another side of the system,” he says. “They might have a negative perception of the legal profession, but there are lawyers who do a lot of good.

“And we owe it to them to demonstrate that this is an honorable and great profession.”

Believing a local effort to increase participation in mock trial essential, McVeagh last summer approached 2018 CBA President Marc Harwell and CBA Executive Director Lynda Hood and asked if the association would fully sponsor the competition.

Harwell and Hood “jumped all over it,” he says.

Empowered by a sense of purpose, McVeagh, Harwell and Hood approached Hamilton County Department of Education Superintendent Bryan Johnson about reaching out to local public schools to gauge their interest in mock trial.

Topping their wish list were The Howard School, Brainerd High School and other schools that had either never competed or not had a team in many years.

“We pledged to give each school that put together a team an attorney coach,” McVeagh says. “We were confident our bar would step up to the plate.”

Each school was responsible for its own recruiting. When Johnson returned to the CBA with a list of schools that had expressed interest, the association reached out to its members for volunteer coaches. The response was overwhelming.

“We were able to assign two and three coaches per team,” the judge says.

Howard and Brainerd expressed interest but could not produce enough students to form a team. McVeagh says he hopes to rectify similar situations next year by taking advantage of a rule that allows students from two schools to form a single squad.

“We’re going to continue to push recruitment at these schools,” the judge says.

The CBA then treated the schools that did form a new team to some of the top attorneys in the city.

A building year

Widely considered one of the best criminal defense attorneys in Chattanooga, Lee Davis has plenty of work to do. But like other local attorneys, he says he considers mock trial to be a sacred calling. So, when the CBA asked for coaches, he stepped up.

Joining Davis at Tyner last fall were Harwell, Brent Burks and James Hurst, giving the team access to four experienced trial attorneys. Since this year’s legal problem involved a second-degree murder charge, the school couldn’t have asked for a better cadre of coaches.

So, as Davis prepared to defend Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd against an extortion charge during the day, he spent a couple of evenings each week helping to turn a group of unseasoned students into a formidable legal team complete with prosecutors, defense attorneys and witnesses.

Job one entailed weaving the various threads of the second-degree murder problem into both a prosecutable and defendable case. The challenge, Davis says, was helping the students to understand the narrative.

“The case had elements of ambiguity, so we needed the students to stop thinking about whether the defendant was guilty or not and address both sides of the problem,” Davis says. “One the one hand, they needed to line up the facts to show why the defendant was guilty. Then they had to consider their defense.”

Credibility problems with the defense’s witnesses complicated matters and challenged the team’s coaches to teach the students how to build a case while acknowledging its problems.

Davis says he was not surprised when the students rose to the challenge after receiving basic guidance.

“We didn’t write the case out verbatim for them,” he says. “We gave them a basic structure and then told them to pull some things together and see how they thought it should go.

“Part of the challenge for us was to not baby them. They’re smart kids.”

As Davis and the other coaches helped the students become comfortable with courtroom procedure, presenting their case and asking questions, they passed on small life lessons along the way.

While being cross-examined, a student playing the role of a witness sat at a desk in Tyner’s library, slouched over and answering questions too quietly to be heard. Harwell halted the proceedings and offered feedback that would improve not just the young man’s performance but also his communication skills.

“You’re going to be a great witness,” Harwell said. “I want you to sit up straight and place your hands in front of you on the table. That will help you focus and speak up.

“It will also help you when you’re on a job interview. Who’s going to hire you if you’re slumped over versus your shoulders are back and you’re looking the person in the eye?”

Davis says one of the most valuable lessons a student can learn during mock trial is that the outcome of a case is driven by the quality of the attorneys involved. “Seeing that this case could go either way based upon the efforts and skill they bring to it is a tremendous experience for the kids to have,” he says.

After several weeks of regular practices, Tyner was ready for its first match.

Moment of truth

As the students from Tyner entered Hollingsworth’s courtroom, their three-ring notebooks crammed with notes, they looked sharp. They also seemed calm and confident as they sat across from their opponent, Hixson High School – another new team.

Then, with little fanfare, the match began. Opening statements were delivered quickly, and both teams settled into a steady rhythm of presenting their case and cross-examining the other side’s witnesses. Without any prompting from the coaches, the students proceeded lockstep to the conclusion of the trial about an hour later.

Hollingsworth and the jurors (Dolmovich and Department of Children’s Services attorney Charlotte Mattingly) then disappeared into the judge’s chambers. A few minutes later, they emerged with a verdict: Hixson had prevailed.

Before adjourning, Hollingsworth offered both praise and constructive criticism, calling the students’ performance “remarkable” while encouraging them to get away from their notes, move around the courtroom and engage the jury.

“I remember my death grip on the podium when I was about 10 years older than you and just out of law school,” he said. “But get over that. Work on being looser.”

Mattingly told the students to raise more objections.

“Don’t be afraid. There’s a lot in here you could challenge,” she said. “As you practice and become more comfortable with the material, that will be easier to do.”

Despite losing the case, the Tyner students were relieved their first match was behind them and felt encouraged by the applause they received from Hollingsworth and the jurors. Davis was pleased, too.

“This wasn’t about winning the competition,” he says. “It was about getting a group of kids together and making sure they felt good about what they accomplished.

“You can’t teach experience. They have to get up there and do it.”

Future prospects

As with Kinard and the other members of the local bar who competed in high school mock trial, the experience had a transformative effect on many of the students who competed for the first time, including those from Hixson High.

Zy’Drea Hunter, a senior bound for Carson-Newman University this fall, says she’s always wanted to become a surgeon but is now considering taking a prelaw class to see if she likes the material as much as she enjoyed participating in mock trial.

Hunter says she also walked away from the competition harboring deep respect for attorneys, who work harder than she’d ever imagined.

“I feel bad for them because they have to do this on a daily basis,” she says. “We practiced nonstop for months to make sure we knew the case inside and out. How in the world do you do this for living?”

Hunter says she even gained a new appreciation for judges who preside over criminal trials and juries that are responsible for delivering verdicts in these cases, as they often must decide the ultimate fate of the defendant.

“Judges and juries have to make hard decisions,” she says. “I wouldn’t want someone’s life in my hands like that. Of course, I want to be a surgeon.”

Another Hixson senior, Emmy Catlett, said taking part in mock trial inspired her to begin working harder at school and other endeavors.

“My mom says I get out of things what I put into them. I’m not proud to say this, but I try to get away with the least I can do,” Catlett admits. “That’s going to change.”

Alerriah Bishop, who played a witness, saw a shift in her perceptions of people and came to understand the potential for redemption when someone has stumbled in life.

“I’m not interested in the law. I joined mock trial because it was something different to do. And I’m happy I did because it’s helped me to see how people truly are.

“There aren’t good people and there aren’t bad people; there are people who make good decisions and people who make bad decisions, or mistakes. And when someone makes a mistake, they can recover from it.”

Bishop won the award for best witness for playing the role of the defendant.

Although Hixson lost its other matches, Hunter is happy about one thing regarding to her team’s win-loss record: They still did better than the school’s football team.

Plus, they’re not giving up.

“The people who did it this year are all in for next year, and they want to do better,” Hunter says.

Attorney Chandler Lawson, who coached Hixson with law partner Mary DeCamp, says she could not be prouder of the students.

“Because it was the largest mock trial competition in many years, it would have been easy for a first-year team to be easily intimidated or fold when up against more experienced schools,” Lawson says. “But our entire team did a great job of putting into action what they had spent so much time practicing.

“It was awesome to see their confidence grow as each round progressed. There were several moments when our competitors would experiment with new and different tactics, and it was rewarding to see our team quickly develop and utilize their own new tactics in response.

“We could not have asked for a better first-year team, and we’re excited about what the future holds for them.”

Next stop: Nashville

Eventually, a familiar name claimed the crown: Signal Mountain Black, which defeated the top team from Girls Preparatory School to claim its third consecutive championship.

Signal Mountain Black and CSTHEA Blue will now advance to the statewide competition in Nashville on March 22-23.

The Chattanooga teams they’ll leave behind will likely be cheering them on. They’ll also be thinking ahead to next year, when they’ll no longer be the new kids on the block.