Arguing both sides all the way to state

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West Jefferson High School’s mock trial team, Team Vortex, advanced to state competition where on March 8 they won their first round, the best state finish in school history. Shown here at a competition held earlier in the season at Miami University are Vortex members: (front row, from left) Jared Vermilion, Thomas Farbacher; (back row) Reese Nawman, Loraine Stone, Hope Lewis and Andrew Weber.

(Posted March 22, 2018)

By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor

Their teams are named after their advisors’ dogs, and their unofficial theme song is “Africa” by Toto.

Sure, the students who make up West Jefferson High School’s mock trial teams are fun-loving, but they also know how to get serious about law.

In fact, Team Vortex argued and cross-examined their way to a top-18 finish at the state competition this year.

“It’s the farthest we’ve ever made it,” said government teacher Jenny Siddiqi, who co-advises the school’s mock trial teams with volunteer Marla Farbacher, an assistant prosecuting attorney for the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office.

Here’s how the competition works. In the fall, the Ohio Center for Law Related Education puts out a mock trial case based on a real-life case. Teams from across the state sign up to compete in district competition, where they try the case twice, each time representing a different side. To advance to regionals, a team must win both trials. The same applies for moving on to state. All along the way, they argue the case in real courtrooms.

This year, students took on the post-conviction relief petition of Adam Smith, who in 1999 was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend, a fellow high school student. Smith recently filed a petition for a new trial, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. According to the case summary, Smith contends his original attorney mishandled evidence and failed to follow-up on a potential alibi witness. That original attorney was disbarred a few years after Smith’s case.

At West Jefferson High School, students start to work on the case as part of a course Siddiqi teaches called Advanced Trial Procedures. Students in that class, as well as recruits from the theater department, then tryout for spots on the mock trial team, an extracurricular activity. Those who make it on the team are assigned roles as attorneys or witnesses for the prosecution or the defense.

This year, West Jefferson fielded two teams: Team Vortex and Team Fletcher. Both spent countless hours inside and outside of class writing and rehearsing opening and closing statements, practicing cross and direct examinations, honing their critical thinking and listening skills. The preparation is time-consuming and intense, and Siddiqi is impressed with how her students embrace the challenge.

“How many kids would come in after school and talk about case law for two hours? It’s impressive, the work they put it,” she said.

The teams are shaped based on each member’s strengths and how they complement one other.

For instance, on Team Vortex, senior Thomas Farbacher’s calm presentation of facts as either a defense or prosecuting attorney paired well with the more aggressive, emotional approaches of senior Hope Lewis, a prosecuting attorney, and junior Loraine Stone, a defense attorney.

Stone is one of those people who can throw hilarious one-liners into any conversation. That quick wit served her well as a prosecution witness, allowing her to field unexpected questions on the fly, stymying many a prosecuting attorney.

In addition to Farbacher, Lewis, and Stone, Team Vortex included seniors Andrew Weber and Jared Vermilion as defense witnesses, senior Reese Nawman as a prosecuting witness, and senior Sarah Haskins as Nawman’s alternate.

Team Fletcher, the less experienced of the two teams but equally as hard-working, included Juliana Brunicardi, Madison Endicott, Jillian Flowers, Alaina Hitzeman, Mary Kronk, Kristen Layton and Sydney Lohr.

The two teams were among 347 who competed at the district level on Jan. 26, both assigned to the Marion County Courthouse. Fletcher won one trial but lost the second by one vote. Vortex won both trials and advanced to regionals, which took place Feb. 16 at the Franklin County Courthouse. Another double-win sent Vortex to state, once again at Franklin County, where they and 35 other qualifying teams competed March 8-9.

West Jefferson teams have made it to state in the past, but never before have they made it past the first single-elimination round. This year, Vortex did just that, beating Portsmouth West. In the second round, they lost to Strongsville, who went on to the final four.

“We all went home feeling like we did everything we could have,” Siddiqi said.

So, who should give mock trial a try?

Lewis said, “If you are a kid who talks back to your parents, if you like to argue and get the last word, you should.”

Weber’s two cents: “If you like being drowned in extra work, you should.”

And the wry Stone added, “To pretend to be someone you’re not helps you discover who you are.”

Seriously, though, Weber, who wants to become a defense attorney, said mock trial is a terrific way to learn how the judicial system works. Lewis said it helps you learn to think on your feet, perfect for college interviews. Farbacher, who plans to continue competing in mock trial at the college level, said he’s become a better public speaker through the experience.

Marla Farbacher, who has served as an advisor to West Jefferson’s mock trial teams for the past seven years, can’t say enough about the program.

“The students learn how to function in a formal/professional setting, public speaking, legal concepts, and how to think on their feet. They learn to introduce themselves, shake hands, and interact with judges and lawyers,” she said.

“This is a really fantastic program that provides students another extracurricular opportunity beyond the more traditional clubs and sports.”

Both Farbacher and Siddiqi are excited about the future of West Jefferson’s mock trial program. Though they are graduating several seniors, they have several talented mock attorneys and witnesses waiting in the wings. Team Fletcher placed fourth at a one-day invitational at the University of Cincinnati this year.

“They’re going to be fantastic next year,” Siddiqi said.

For more about the competition, including an overview of how the program works, this year’s case file, and awards info, go to www.oclre.org/aws/OCLRE/pt/sp/mocktrial_highschool, the Ohio Center for Law Related Education website.

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