Five eye witnesseses saw Philip Newton get shot and killed May 14, 2011 in Miltonville, and Georgia's high school students are the ones charged with sorting through the evidence and reconstructing the case.
Newton County's three high schools competed in their third Georgia High School Mock Trial Competition Feb. 11, and though Eastside High School finished second in the competition, the team will make its first trip to state after being randomly selected as a wildcard team.
Sandy Creek High School beat Eastside in the final round Feb. 11, and as runner up Eastside was placed into a pool of eight fellow runner-up teams, one of which would receive a wildcard berth to the state competition. Eastside got the lucky call this year, earning Newton County's first trip to state.
"I'm really excited and anxious to see the other strategies used by the other regions," said Eastside senior Justin Cochran, who was on the school's prosecution team. "I want to see how our region (15) will compete against another region. I'm really glad we'll get a chance to see the things we were lacking in the regional competition, and how we'll be able to use that knowledge in the state competition."
Mock Trial is an extracurricular activity that pairs students with legal professionals and challenges those students to study the facts of a fictional case (based loosely off a real case), build their own case and play the parts of prosecutor, defense attorney and witness in a real courtroom before a real judge.
"I see that it helps young people to develop skills that will help them whether they go into the practice of law or not. It helps teach them organization skills, to be prepared to react to unforeseen circumstances and to think on their feet," said Superior Court Judge Samuel Ozburn, who volunteered and coordinated the other volunteer judges.
"It helps their communication skills and builds self confidence. All of those are important whether you practice law or go into teaching or public administration or whether you want to own your own construction company."
This year Georgia students tried the fictional case State v. Capulet, loosely based on the 2008 Oconee County case State v. Gear. In the fictional case, Philip Newton was shot and killed by Danny/Dani Capulet (witnesses are created so as to be able to be played by men or women).
Newton's motorcycle was hit by Capulet's child Julian/Julianne (simplified to Jules) in the parking lot of a big box store. Jules then drives off and heads toward home and is pursued by Newton. Newton allegedly takes aggressive action including driving on Capulet's yard, where he is shot and killed by Danny/Dani. The prosecution and defense each have three witnesses, who all have different takes on the details of the case.
"The prosecution has brought you three witnesses with conflicting statements...The prosecution has brought three allegations against my client, but how they can prove any of them when their witnesses don't agree?" Alcovy High School junior Briana Clark asked in her closing statement for the defense. "Who can you trust?"
Clark was Alcovy's team captain in her second year in the competition. She won an outstanding attorney award for her prosecution work last year and was sent to the University of Georgia Mock Trial Law Academy this summer, and she called the academy one of the best experiences of her life. Every year, the Kiwanis Club of Covington pays the fees for one student from each Newton County high school to attend the academy.
"I want to be a lawyer to be a voice for people who other people don't want to listen to. I love helping people and speaking for people too scared to speak up," Clark said.
The Newton County Judicial Center hosted the Region 15 Mock Trial competition for the third year, and local attorney Shannon Sneed served as regional coordinator, organizing the event and soliciting the participation of numerous volunteers, including 41 attorneys and 14 judges and overseeing 130 students and attorney and teacher coaches. Even local sheriff's deputies devoted their Saturday to serve as courtroom bailiffs.
"We are very pleased and proud of the success we had in Region 15 this year. We felt that all the teams that are competing with us are maturing. They are developing better skills and that's evident by watching the performances and seeing how the kids act," Sneed said.
"These kids are trying to play attorneys and witnesses and you have actual practicing attorneys working with them," Sneed said. "Everybody is strictly a volunteer. They all do it because they want to do something to benefit the kids. They all believe in this."
Sneed also thanked Chick-fil-A, First Baptist Church, Subway and Stevi B's for providing free and discounted food for the judges and participants, Buck and Betty Levins for their generous donation and Kiwanis and Oxford Circle K members for volunteering.
The 2012 State Finals Tournament will take place March 16-18 in Lawrenceville.