May 2024

Mock Trial Competition Teaches Teens About Justice

This year, a group of teenagers was tasked with bringing justice following the death of Kieran Sunshine, a biomedical executive found with apparent stab wounds in a hotel room as it began to emerge the company’s ForeverFlex5000 wasn’t such a wonder-device after all.

Thankfully no one actually died—it was just a storyline dreamed-up for the 2024 Santa Cruz County Mock Trial competition.

But the way the scenario played out (in the courtroom where people really do get sent to jail), had legal practitioners commenting that the kids were doing a better job than what they’ve even seen from some lawyers.

“Congratulations on making it to the final round,” said Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Syda Cogliati, as the proceedings began in Department 5 around 5:30pm. “I know how hard all of you have worked to be here.”

Teach Democracy, formerly known as the Constitutional Rights Foundation, has been managing the California Mock Trial Competition since 1980; it produces the witness statements, exhibits, simplified rules of evidence, and lesson plans on the central issues in the case.

The local iteration is put on by the Santa Cruz County Office of Education in partnership with the Santa Cruz County Bar Association, the Superior Court of California Santa Cruz, the Santa Cruz Trial Lawyers Association, and the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office.

In the matter at issue—People v. Clark—the final hearing was like watching a courtroom TV drama come to life.

Mary Fukai, an attorney coach who retired from the Santa Cruz County Office of the Public Defender, confirmed that it wasn’t scripted.

Students, she explained, receive a list of facts, case law and witness statements that are about 2-3 pages long.

“They basically take all of this information and they turn it into direct examinations, cross examinations,” she said. 

Both sides (Santa Cruz High School on defense and Pacific Collegiate School prosecuting) had four minutes to present their arguments, on top of responding to questions from the judge.

The first order of business was a motion to quash a warrant for cellphone data that had sucked up personal information from dozens of mobile devices.

The young litigators debated the applicability of geofence law established in landmark cases like People v. Meza, United States v. Chatrie, People v. Dawes and Price v. Superior Court (Riverside) to try to gain an advantage.

Students provided on-the-ball responses to tough questioning from the bench on par with anything you might hear during daytime court sessions.

“I’ll grant the motion to suppress the evidence,” the judge decided.

Then it was on to opening arguments, with Henry Solomon, who was part of last year’s winning team, setting out why defendant Tobie Clark should be convicted—saying she lied on the patent for the ForeverFlex, which she knew had harmful effects, then killed Sunshine after learning he was going to go public.

“Tobie Clark wouldn’t let him get away with this,” he said. “Having begun with fraud, she turned to murder.”

The People called four witnesses, and despite the defense efforts to chip away at their credibility, the judge was persuaded to render her first-degree murder decision.

Their client may have been found guilty, but that didn’t necessarily mean they would lose the competition.

In fact, both teams ended up with the exact same score: 641 points.

Cogliati was called upon, once more, to break the tie.

When she decided for the defense team, the courtroom erupted into cheers.

“It’s just feels so exciting,” said Samuel Attard, 17, who had the job of defense attorney. “It’s our senior year as well.”

However, the members of the prosecution team were left deflated.

 “It’s heartbreaking,” said Sita Kaimal, the mock trial coordinator, explaining just how difficult a loss like this can feel after so many hours of study and practice. “I’m happy for both of them.”

An award named after former Scotts Valley mayor and respected judge Paul Marigonda, who died recently, was handed out for the first time.

The honor—for the team that showed excellence in enthusiasm, effort and courage—went to Pajaro Valley High School.

By Drew Penner

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