West Jeff mock trial team Zooms back to state competition

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West Jefferson High School’s mock trial team qualified for state competition this year. The team included: (front row, from left) Raina Peter, Taylor Fry, Harley Johnson, Emma Hostetler; (back row) Riley Marshall, Annabel Phipps, Olivia Foreman, Jessica Fling, Tennessee Jennings and Autumn Lewis. Not pictured: Grace Kitchen.

(Posted April 6, 2021)

By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor

A little more than a year ago, two mock trial teams from West Jefferson High School qualified for state competition. It was the fifth time in nine years the program qualified for the big show and the first time with two teams. Excitement was high…until organizers pulled the plug the night before the competition due to COVID-19.

Fast forward to this year. West Jefferson qualified for state again, this time with one team. On that team were many of the students who lost out on the state experience last year.

“They had kind of a sense of, ‘We want to finish what we started,’” said Jenny Siddiqi, the team’s advisor.

The road to state qualification looked much different this time around. Practices and competitions took place over Zoom, an online video conferencing platform, instead of in person. The team worked through the technical challenges of sound, camera angles, and split screens to facilitate direct- and cross-examinations and to share exhibits.

“At first, we wondered how this was going to work, but it surprisingly worked pretty well,” said Siddiqi, who co-advises the group with Marla Farbacher, a local resident and attorney. “It was a lot to figure out on top of learning about the case.”

Each year, the Ohio Center for Law-Related Education, sponsor of the Ohio Mock Trial Competition, writes an original case based on a relevant constitutional issue. The case details are presented to mock trial teams in the fall. Students must prepare arguments for prosecution and defense.

This year’s case involved a teen accused of murdering a love interest. When told there was an eyewitness, the teen took a plea deal. Afterwards, the witness expressed uncertainty about whether the accused person was actually the person who committed the crime. With that information, the accused teen wanted to rescind the plea deal.

In preparing the case, mock trial team members learned about plea bargaining, the importance of eyewitnesses, and the Brady rule, which requires prosecutors to disclose exculpatory evidence in the government’s possession to the defense. Exculpatory evidence is evidence that could excuse, justify or absolve the alleged fault or guilt of a defendant.

The West Jefferson students who tackled this year’s case included:

  • prosecution team–junior Tennessee Jennings and sophomore Autumn Lewis as attorneys; juniors Annabel Phipps and Grace Kitchen as witnesses;
  • defense team–junior Jessica Fling and senior Emma Hostetler as attorneys; senior Taylor Fry and junior Riley Marshall as witnesses;
  • timekeeper–junior Olivia Foreman;
  • alternates–seniors Raina Peter and Harley Johnson.

The team won both trials at district and regionals to advance to state competition which started on March 11. From among approximately 220 teams statewide, West Jefferson was one of 19 teams to qualify for state. The group won their first trial but got knocked out of the competition after losing the second trial by a few points. Only four teams made it out of the first two rounds.

“We were really pleased with how they did. We were up against a really good team, Orange High School from northeast Ohio,” Siddiqi said.

About the season overall, she continued, “We went from not knowing how we were going to do this in the new format to, at the end of the day, having what I think is one of the strongest teams West Jefferson has ever had.”

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