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Mock trial team tops county

PINE PLAINS — Imagine if legal firms hired scouts to search for up-and-coming high school talent, much like they already do for professional sports. If that were the case, all Dutchess County eyes would be on Stissing Mountain Middle/High School: Its mock trial team recently flexed its lawyerly muscles, placing first in county competition early last month.

The Pine Plains team is advised by high school social studies teacher John Schoonmaker and two local attorneys, Sarah Jones and Richard Sinrod. The advisors work with the team during practice, but once competitions start, the high school students are on their own, left to their own wits and understanding of the case and the law.

On April 7, the Pine Plains team, made up of approximately 20 students, defeated Red Hook to claim first place in county competitions. It’s an impressive accomplishment, but not a first for the school. In the past six years, Pine Plains has placed first in the county three times, and for the fourth year in a row a Pine Plains lawyer has been recognized.

Every team in the state is given the same case to prepare for in the fall. This year’s case involved accusations of Wall Street fraud (mock trail cases often invoke real life-events; in this case, Bernie Madoff comes to mind).

Several students on the mock trial team were available to sit down for an interview with The Millerton News. With spring athletics in full swing, it’s hard to get the entire team together at once, Schoonmaker said, but students convene in smaller groups to keep their skills sharp for upcoming regional competition.

 There’s a lot to gain from participating on a mock trial team, many of the students attested to, other than legal experience.

“It gave me the opportunity to work on my public speaking abilities,” senior Jessica Stapf explained. “I want to go into politics and law, and being on the team really helped me with learning to speak publicly.”

The students step into a variety of roles. Three students on each team are lawyers, some act as witnesses and others are content to work behind the scenes as researchers and assistants. Preparation is key. The team worked for months to prepare for competition season, which started in January.

Julia Mizutani, who won the  county’s 2009-10 Ben-Allen Breslow Outstanding Attorney Award this year, is in her second year in the role of lawyer and is the only current member of the team that has four years of experience behind her.

“Both are really fun,” she said, comparing the roles of witness and lawyer, as she’s done both. “Being a lawyer is more work, and requires more intellect. It’s about connecting — you can’t just be asking questions. It’s about connecting with the witness and the judge.”

It’s the witnesses’ job to know their characters inside and out, and they better have their facts straight because they’ll be cross-examined by the other team’s lawyer, who is often looking to trap witnesses into admitting something contradictory.

“I hate doing it [when I’m on the stand] but when it’s over I always realize I had a lot of fun up there,” admitted Christine Lawless, a junior who has been with the team for two years (and recognizes the inherent irony in her last name).

Jones, who has worked as an attorney coach with the team for the past six years, said that, above all, this year’s group “worked as a team and was very supportive of each other, helping other team members improve.”

While the case material might be a little drier than the team would have liked, it’s certainly brought them up to speed with current events.

“I’m following [the Goldman Sachs lawsuit],” Stapf said, “and I actually understand all of that stuff now!”

No Pine Plains team has advanced past regional competitions, which will be held this weekend in Kingston and will include the winners from Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Westchester, Ulster and Rockland counties.

But even if the team doesn’t advance to states, which would be held in Albany, being a part of extracurricular events like the mock trail sometimes brought out a side of the students they didn’t know was there.

“I didn’t realize I liked arguing so much!” Mizutani said, laughing.

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