Order in the (mock) court: High-schoolers learn how to navigate a courtroom

Two juries agreed: Washington Senators starting quarterback Robert Triffy IV was not guilty of malicious wounding and assault and battery. Triffy had been charged with the crimes after his errant pass struck receiver LeSean Trackson in the face as Trackson chatted with a cheerleader on the sideline. Trackson suffered a broken nose and was eventually traded to another team.

The fictitious scenario — inspired by players for another Washington football team — played out simultaneously in four Loudoun County courtrooms June 20. The teams of attorneys on both sides were actually high school students participating in mock trials, the culmination of the 14th annual Thomas D. Horne Leadership in the Law summer camp.

Criminal trials were heard in two courtrooms, where Triffy was acquitted of all charges. Civil trials played out in the other two courtrooms. Both of the civil trial juries found in favor of Trackson, the plaintiff. Attorney Elizabeth Ross, publicity chair for the law camp, said that such differing outcomes are common, because the burden of proof is much lower in civil cases than in criminal trials.

Ross, who has been involved with the law camp for six years, said she was very impressed by the students.

“The fact that they spend their first week out of high school for the summer devoted to this intense, academic competition shows us that we can find our nation’s future leaders right here in Loudoun County,” she said.

The camp was renamed last year to honor Horne, a retired Loudoun County Circuit Court judge who initiated the project. The Loudoun and Fauquier bar associations organized the camp, and bar association members served as mentors to the students throughout the week, preparing them for the mock trials. Local lawyers also played the roles of witnesses in the trials, and community leaders served as jurors.

The mock trials took place on the last day of the week-long, overnight camp, which was at Camp Meadowkirk, near Middleburg. Twenty-four students from public and private high schools across Loudoun and Fauquier counties were chosen for the camp after a vigorous application process, Ross said. They worked all week with local judges, lawyers, law clerks and other professionals to prepare for the trials, she said.

Ross said that local lawyers served on committees responsible for fundraising, publicity and organizing mentors and witnesses. The mentors taught the students about criminal and civil law, courtroom procedures, effective trial advocacy and the use of evidence. Under the supervision of the mentors, student legal teams studied case outlines, visited the crime scene, interviewed witnesses and experts, analyzed evidence and argued preliminary motions in preparation for trial.

The camp included recreational activities for the students, organizers said. They went white-water rafting and took salsa lessons from a dance instructor. On June 18, they were given a private, behind-the-scenes tour of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Although the scenario devised for the mock trial was amusing, the campers were deadly serious. In the courtrooms with criminal trials, three students served as a team of prosecutors, and three others formed the defense team. In their roles as attorneys, they presented the opening and closing arguments, asked questions of witnesses to bring out the facts of the case and raised numerous objections.

Quentin Watts, 16, a rising senior at Woodgrove High School, said the mock trial was his favorite part of the camp, although he admitted that he felt nervous when it was his turn to present. “Just leading up to everything, this was like game day,” he said. “So this was the best part.”

Watts, who served on the team of prosecutors, said he was disappointed by the jury’s verdict of not guilty. “I was mad, because I have a competitive spirit,” he said. “But it was good. I felt we all did the best we could and that we put out the best [case] that we could.”

Watts said that he is interested in pursuing law as a career.

“This was a very good camp, a good experience for it, so I’ll definitely consider it,” he said.

Horne, who presided over the trial in the Old Courthouse, was clearly delighted by the proceedings.

“You did an excellent job,” he told the campers after the trial. “You spoke with clarity. You raised excellent objections. . . . Each and every one of you played a critical role in making this trial work.”

Members of the jury, which included three high school principals, also complimented the students.

“I hope it never happens, but if I were to have to appear in a courtroom someday, I would want to have you on my side,” Loudoun County High School Principal Bill Oblas said.

Park View High School Principal Virginia Minshew told the students that they had demonstrated skill at collaborating, public speaking and critical thinking, and that these are abilities they will need no matter what professions they choose.

Horne said he particularly enjoyed a bench conference in which he met with attorneys on both sides to discuss how to handle the testimony of one witness, a doctor who embraced what Horne termed “junk science.”

“It was a great discussion,” he told the campers. “Everybody was animated. Everyone was involved. . . . It was magic! This was really, really, really, really good stuff.”

Jim Barnes is a freelance writer.

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