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Holding court: La Jolla Country Day varsity mock trial team wins first county title and heads to state finals

Members of the La Jolla Country Day School Torrey Mock Trial program.
Members of the La Jolla Country Day School Torrey Mock Trial program. The varsity team won the San Diego County High School Mock Trial Competition and moves to the state finals this month.
(Courtesy)

La Jolla Country Day School’s varsity mock trial team had its day in virtual court, winning its first San Diego County High School Mock Trial Competition last month against 27 other teams. The team is now preparing for the state finals, which will take place online March 18-21.

LJCDS has two teams that make up its Torrey Mock Trial program: varsity, which consists of 16 competing members and one alternate, and junior varsity, which has 20 members and also competed in the county event but did not place among the top 10 teams.

Mock trial is a “public speaking competition with the legal aspect,” said TMT co-captain Andrew Kuhn, a senior who has participated since ninth grade. “It looks like a courtroom,” he said, with teams split evenly between prosecution and defense. Each round of competition features one school’s prosecution against another’s defense.

“We start off by both sides giving an opening statement,” Kuhn said. Witnesses are then questioned by each side, and each side gives a closing statement. “Both sides are trying to convince the court that their narrative is the correct narrative,” he said.

Each mock trial team in the state is given the same case, with cases differing each year. This year’s case, the fictional People v. Croddy, is the trial of Lee Croddy, who has a popular YouTube channel called “The Right Choice of News.” Croddy has been charged with two counts: aiding and abetting in the commission of first-degree burglary by another, and accessory after the fact, according to the case brief.

The mock trial attorneys must write opening and closing statements and questions for each witness “to get the evidence that you want from the case back out into the trial,” Kuhn said.

“Mock trial is a rigorous process that you can only really do if you enjoy it, if you have a passion for it and you want to strive to be better,” said co-captain Ashley Lee, also a senior and a fourth-year mock trial participant.

In a normal year, schools in the competition would enter a formal courtroom, Kuhn said, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all rounds this year were held online.

Each mock trial is presided over by a county or federal judge. But “the way that mock trial rounds are decided isn’t based on whether a person is innocent or guilty,” Kuhn said.

The winner is determined by the teams’ scores given by members of the San Diego Bar Association. “You’re graded on how well you’ve prepared, how good your content was and how well you delivered it,” Kuhn said.

A screenshot from the county mock trial competition shows the Torrey Mock Trial team receiving its first-place award.
A screenshot from the county mock trial competition shows the Torrey Mock Trial team receiving its first-place award, along with members of the San Diego Bar Association.
(Courtesy)

In addition to taking the county championship, LJCDS students earned eight individual awards. Sophia Cheng, Alice Irvin and Sara Sigal won Outstanding Witness awards; Dani Diaz won Outstanding Bailiff; Lee, Kuhn and JV member Tavisha Khanna won Outstanding Trial Attorney; and Roma Nagle won Outstanding Pretrial Attorney.

The varsity team also includes Walter Chen, Grace Karmazin-Schneider, Caroline Kelly, Lauren Miller, Eshi Nair, Fiona Paterson, Tofi Poumele, Terry Tran, Daniel Wolf and Eric Yang.

Head coach Jonathan Shulman, who has coached TMT the past 11 years, also teaches Advanced Placement U.S. government and U.S. history and directs the school’s Center for Excellence in Citizenship.

TMT is “a big operation,” he said, with a crew of attorney coaches along with LJCDS teacher coach Dan Norland.

The teams hold auditions at the beginning of the year for almost every role, Kuhn said.

They meet once a week, either in person or virtually, though varsity members often meet more frequently.

“I meet with my team members outside of school and with the attorney coaches,” Kuhn said. “Sometimes I might have four or five meetings for mock trial a week,” ranging from a one-hour gathering to a six-hour scrimmage.

Mock trial often is “an organizational monster,” Lee said. “You have to get your team together, coordinate in preparation for competition days. Before competition days, the more crucial part of competition is the scrimmages that we do throughout the year, because those are really the opportunities in which the team focuses together and has a formal presentation … and we perform to the best of our ability in those practice rounds.”

“A lot of discussion goes into it,” she said. “I like the camaraderie and the communication you have to build, especially in the first developing months” of practice.

Adapting all that to a virtual format has been challenging, Lee said, “but I marvel at how we pulled together. We overcome problems together as a team.”

Adaptations include discussions of onscreen backgrounds, lighting and how “to get your box [on Zoom] to be as immaculate as it could possibly be,” Kuhn said.

Shulman called TMT’s county win “certainly one of the most bonding experiences in one of the most disconnected times.” ◆