The verdict is in: La Jolla students win awards at county mock trial competition

The Bishop's School team placed fourth in the 2022 San Diego County High School Mock Trial Competition.
(Cathy Morrison)

Two of La Jolla’s three high schools placed in the top 10 among 32 entrants in the recent San Diego County High School Mock Trial Competition, and members of all three earned individual awards for performance.

During a mock trial, school teams are split between prosecution and defense on the same case. Each round of competition features one school’s prosecution against another’s defense; each team has 40 minutes to try their entire case.

During the 2022 contest, which took place over five days between Feb. 26 and March 10, teams competed in person at the San Diego Central Courthouse. Last year’s version was held entirely on Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Bishop’s School team placed fourth overall, with members Ellie Hodges and Elena LeTorneau winning awards for outstanding pretrial attorney and Will Keefe earning an award for outstanding bailiff.

La Jolla Country Day School's Team 1 placed sixth in the mock trial competition.
(Courtesy of La Jolla Country Day School)

La Jolla Country Day School, which won the title last year, entered two teams, with Team 1 placing sixth overall. Team 1 member Siena Bateman won an award for outstanding bailiff, Team 2 member Sophia Hwang was named an outstanding prosecution witness and Team 1 member Roma Nagle earned an award for outstanding pretrial defense attorney.

La Jolla High School team president Caroline Gaffney was named an outstanding trial prosecution attorney and Sylvie Bass earned an award for outstanding prosecution witness.

This year’s case involved a defendant charged with using a venomous snake placed in a neighbor’s mailbox to kill the neighbor.

“There’s a lot of underlying tension between the defendant and the neighbor who died,” said La Jolla Country Day competitor Caroline Kelly. In the trial scenario, the defendant’s mother died after the neighbor — her landlord — cut off her electricity over non-payment of rent.

As the defendant, Kelly, a senior who has been on mock trial teams for six years, said it was difficult “digging into the emotional aspect of it.”

“Each year the case gets increasingly complicated,” said La Jolla High senior and mock trial vice president and defense attorney Benjamin Jimenez.

Preparation for this year’s competition proved strenuous for all the teams, as it wasn’t known until just before the start whether COVID case rates would allow for an in-person event.

The students prepared simultaneously for a Zoom and an in-court trial, holding in-person practices but participating in scrimmages against other schools online.

Zoom scrimmages were “unnerving,” Jimenez said. “We weren’t getting the real energy of a courtroom.”

Still, the scrimmages were invaluable practice, according to Bishop’s teacher and coach Richard del Rio.

“When you’re actually competing with another school in a scrimmage, you learn the granular nature of the case and where the arguments are and learn to respond quickly and on point,” he said.

For del Rio, “it was really a hard January … we just didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Eventually, the competition organizers postponed the start by three weeks to allow for an in-person event.

“It was a blessing,” del Rio said. San Diego was the only county in the state to hold its mock trial competition in person, he said.

The postponement led to Gaffney and Jimenez, both in their third year of mock trial, having to switch roles just before the contest, as the new competition dates for the La Jolla High prosecution team conflicted with Jimenez’s performance dates for the school’s production of “West Side Story.”

And the night before the competition, one of the prosecution attorneys had to exit the team, leading to more adjustments for LJHS, which had consistently placed in the top 10 in previous years.

Despite the challenges, “we really worked together,” Gaffney said. “The fact that we got these awards … we’re proud of ourselves, and we were happy with how we performed individually.”

La Jolla High School's mock trial competitors earned two individual awards.
La Jolla High School’s mock trial competitors earned two individual awards. The prosecution is at the top, the defense at the bottom.
(Courtesy of Caroline Gaffney)

Being in person again after a virtual year was “absolutely amazing,” said Country Day’s Kelly.

Competing on Zoom is limiting “because you don’t have your whole body on the screen,” she said. “I really appreciate … being able to tell body language, like facial expressions and everything along those lines, and then also the adrenaline of being in a courtroom and being with your peers.”

All of those elements helped her stay in character as the defendant and contributed to her team’s success, Kelly added.

“We’re just a really cohesive group this year,” she said. “It was really nice to have that, especially after the pandemic, where we were all separated online.”

Kyle Berlage, a defense attorney on the Bishop’s team, said he felt his team gave a “super professional” performance.

The team’s fourth-place showing is a source of pride for member Marianna Pecora, Bishop’s trial defendant. Unlike the other La Jolla schools, which offer mock trial as an extracurricular activity for more than one year, Bishop’s students can only participate as a project of the school’s U.S. government class.

“It’s a completely new team every year,” Pecora said. ◆