This Friday and Saturday, local high school students will be in Columbia pitting their litigation skills against their peers in the sate mock trial competition.
Last week, they tested their skills skills against each other,
"Atticus Finch said the courts are the great equalizers," Mattson Smith said, adding later, "John Adams told us that facts are stubborn things - take your time as you examine these facts today."
With that, the 17-year-old and his colleagues won the case.
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Smith and 16 other students make up Fort Mill High School's mock trial team. The group faced off against Nation Ford High last Tuesday evening in their first scrimmage match.
In a mock trial, students argue both sides of a fictional court case using a combination of debate, forensics and drama skills. The performances aren't scripted. It's up to students to devise arguments based solely on the facts of a case. Objections are ad-libbed and can push the judge either way, just like in a real trial.
Each November, the S.C. Bar Association sends schools a fictional case full of affidavits. The 45 schools across the state that take part have until February to prepare.
Team members split up. Some are attorneys. Others are witnesses. The top 12 teams from four regions face off at a state competition.
Fort Mill High's team will compete in the state tournament March 13-14. If it wins, as it did in 2007, the team will head to the national mock trial competition.
"It exposes students at an early age to the legal justice system," said Thomas Shelley, chairman of the state bar association's Law Related Education Committee. "They look at a problem, analyze it, research and make an argument."
Fort Mill is the only one of York County's four school districts that offers high school mock trial. Northwestern and Rock Hill high schools did in the past. Clover and Rock Hill High are discussing launching new programs.
Time, dedication are key
Running a club isn't easy, said Fort Mill team adviser Lynn Dickinson.
A successful team needs at least one dedicated teacher and several attorneys who volunteer to coach students, Shelley said.
"Oh my gosh," said Maddison Hall, a Fort Mill High senior. "You have no idea how much time it takes."
Hall said she and her teammates have spent up to 20 hours in a week preparing for competition.
Nation Ford High, which opened two years ago, is still building it's program.
"We basically had to start from scratch last year," said team adviser Clay Hasty. Despite that, the team made it to the regional competition earlier this year, but lost to Fort Mill.
Dickinson was involved in developing the mock trial program in South Carolina, which held its first statewide competition in 1982. She helped start the Fort Mill team when she moved here to teach U.S. history and criminal justice.
Last week's friendly scrimmage was mainly for show. Both teams competed before a crowd of parents, teachers, school officials and the local media.
The goal, students said, was to get word out about the program.
Ryan Celley, a Nation Ford senior, said he loves it.
"You just sit down with that affidavit and that evidence, and you go through it with a fine-toothed comb," he said.
Celley wasn't sure he wanted to be an attorney, but now he knows.
"Once I joined mock trial, I was hooked."