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November 12, 2002

Student litigators compete in annual mock trial

From: Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil, IA
Nov. 12, 2002

Staff Writer

On Monday, defense attorneys and prosecutors alike entered the Pottawattamie County Courthouse, complete with legal pads, briefcases ... and braces.

The courthouse, closed Monday for Veterans Day, was the stage for the 19th annual Iowa Junior High School Mock Trial Tournament. Twelve teams from the western part of the state competed - and litigated - to ultimately compete for the state title.

The top two teams from Monday's competition advance, and they were Irwin-Kirkman-Manilla and Sheldon.

"These middle school students knock my socks off!" exclaimed John Wheeler of the Iowa State Bar Association. "I'm happy that we've been able to provide a program that enables them to problem solve, present and employ a lot of higher-level thinking skills."

The mock trial litigated by students was Patrick v. Kids, Inc. Daycare, a case in which a parent sues her child's daycare provider after the child has an asthma attack.

Students played the roles of prosecutor, defense attorney and witnesses. They were accompanied by parents and a small group of judges, who rated and scored each team's performance.

The case, Wheeler said, was loosely based on real cases and was modified using high school competition cases from South Carolina and Georgia. The case was then based on Iowa law before given to the students.

Wheeler said while half of the 12 middle school teams came from Des Moines, no teams represented the Council Bluffs, Lewis Central or St. Albert's school systems or Iowa School for the Deaf. Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln, Lewis Central and ISD do have high school mock trial teams, but compete separately from middle school competitions.

Kate Kohorst was one of two lawyers who has donated her time within the past 12 weeks to assist the team from Harlan. She said the students were graded on their ability to organize, persuade the people in the courtroom and disseminate and understand the facts of the case.

"This helps them understand their civil responsibilities and helps them develop good verbal and written skills," she said.

Since the mock trial competition is not part of the standard curriculum, each team prepared at after-school practices.

Nancy Ludwig, coordinator of Harlan's mock trial program, said the case involved a number of important factors for the prosecution, such as if the daycare is fully responsible for the conduct of its employees, that could affect the outcome of the case.

For the defense team, several circumstances, such as the weather and the child's parents' history of smoking, were also key.

Each case was presided over by mock "justices," mainly comprised of lawyers donating their time. Pottawattamie County District Court Tim O'Grady was the only judge to take part in the mock trial as a judge.

"It's fun. It's a lot of work, and I hope it pays off for us," said Derek Buman, a seventh-grader from Harlan.

Teammate Sandy Brown said, "I think it's a good learning experience. That way, if you do want to be a lawyer, you get to learn the fundamentals."

While the experience was fun, neither Buman nor Brown said they wanted to become lawyers.

Ludwig said the students have worked on critical parts of the trial, such as opening and closing statements. She said the students have learned about the effects of second-hand smoke on both infants and adults to better understand their case.

Wheeler said there is no specific way the trial is supposed to end.

"The case is designed so either side can win on legal merit, as well as how well they portray witnesses and attorneys," he said. "It is this portrayal that will determine who will move on."

The top two teams from Monday's competition will advance and join 32 other teams at the state competition Nov. 22 and 23 in Des Moines. Since middle school mock trial competitions do not have nationals, Wheeler said the Iowa champion is deemed "the national champion."

Whether the students win or lose, Wheeler said, they gained more than just a trophy.

"I've already seen the students walk away with a lot," he said. "It's amazing what they were able to do in two months. They've been able to make sense of a complicated problem and effectively advocate both sides of a problem; but most importantly, they're able to get up in a courtroom with judges and evaluators that they've never seen, against another team they've never seen, and are able to think on their feet and employ critical skills."

The other southwest Iowa middle school competing in addition to Harlan and I-K-M was Malvern.

©2002 The Daily Nonpareil. All rights reserved.