Local high school students are getting firsthand knowledge of what it would be like to go before a judge — both as an attorney, witness, victim and suspect — while preparing for Newton County’s mock trial regional competition.
Local attorneys have volunteered their time and expertise to coach squads of 14 or more students at each of the county’s high schools, and judicial employees take time out of their schedules to coach the students in a courtroom setting, giving them a taste of what an actual trial is like.
Students have their roles as well. One may be a witness to a crime; another a police officer who responded to the incident, yet another might play the criminal — each must learn specific facts about their case and remember what their character experienced in order to testify.
Some students are prosecutors and others play defense attorneys; each side must question and cross examine witnesses as well as follow proper courtroom procedures, regarding admission of evidence, addressing the judge and speaking with a jury.
And there’s no room for nerves – at least not for Newton High School’s squad who practiced under Newton County Assistant District Attorney Anne Kurtz who played the judge and Chief Assistant District Attorney and Layla Zon who stepped out of her usual role as prosecutor and played a defense attorney during Wednesday’s practice, but although she was playing a role, she didn’t go easy on the students, treating them as she would any other witness or attorney in the courtroom.
"I really wanted to get involved in the mock trial program because it has so much to offer the students," said Kurtz. "Not only does it give the students exposure to our criminal justice system, but it also gives them the chance to develop their acting and public speaking skills. As an attorney, it's been a great opportunity for me to get out of the courtroom and into the community. I have really enjoyed getting to know the students, the teachers, and the parents. There's truly nothing more rewarding than watching the students get excited about learning about the system and seeing their improvement each week. It's been a great experience. I am so glad Buck Levins got the program started here in Newton and sincerely hope that we can continue it in the years to come."
For the county’s inaugural year, the students are working on a criminal case involving a high school graduation party out of control – something students may be able to easily identify with. Students are required to remain in character during their testimony, but afterward receive feedback on their performance.
“My reason for getting involved with the mock trial team is that I know how much of an impact this can have on young people,” said Zon. “And I am an example of that. I participated in a similar program in high school and that experience had such an impact on me I realized that this was what I wanted to do. I still have the article that ran in the local paper quoting me as an attorney (in high school) and when come across it from time to time it reminds me that I am a product of teachers and volunteers from the profession that took the time to challenge me, guide me, and encourage me. Even if these students don't decide to pursue a career in law, it will provide them with an experience that I think will be beneficial to them in whatever profession they choose.”
Sponsored by the Georgia Bar Association Young Lawyers Division, the Georgia High School Mock Trial Program was created in 1988 and since then over 1,200 teams of student’s ages 14-19 from the state’s public and private high schools have participated in competitions. During competitions the students are judged by professional attorneys or judges and are evaluated on their ability to make a logical, cohesive and persuasive presentation, rather on the legal merits of the cases, according to the bar association mock trial Web site.
“The mock trial competition has been an enlightening experience for our students,” said Newton High School adviser Aaron Robinson. “The chance to receive invaluable instruction from local attorneys has provided insights into our legal system and the law profession that are sure to leave a deep impression. All of this while offering students an excellent chance to practice their own thinking, preparation, and speaking skills.”
"This can open up a lot of opportunities for the kids," said T. Buckley Levins, Newton County Assistant District Attorney, President of Newton County Bar Association and one of the key people responsible for bringing the program to the county’s high schools. "I think all of our teams are very competitive and will do a great job... It's humbling to watch,” he continued. “To see the various civic organizations, attorneys and judges get so involved in the program and get behind the youth this way... But the real stars are the students and our goal is to be right back here, stronger than ever, this time next year.”