Eighteen-year-old Lauren Barnes has been competing on the Fort Mill High School mock trial team since seventh grade. The payoff from that, she said, “is awesome.”
Barnes, now a senior who is considering a legal career, said she has gained better people skills and “an ability to talk in public, to think on my feet and to articulate.”
Barnes and other members of the Fort Mill team have competed in the state mock trial competition for many years, and their attorney coaches say the team brought home state titles in 2007 and 2009.
This year, both Fort Mill and Nation Ford high school mock trial teams qualified at a regional event two weeks ago for the state competition, sponsored by the South Carolina Bar Association. They are among 12 South Carolina high school mock trial teams chosen to compete Friday and Saturday at the Matthew J. Perry Federal Courthouse in Columbia.
DeKaiah Baxter, a 17-year-old Nation Ford senior who wants to be an attorney, has gained a lot of confidence in her role as an attorney and a team captain.
Baxter, who is interested in being a criminal defense attorney, said she believes there is “a lot of injustice in the world” and wants to be help.
“I like being able to let the jury know that,” she said.
Nation Ford senior Alexis Wood, 17, was shy and didn’t like confrontation when she started competing. In her role as an attorney, Wood learned “to communicate with opposing counsel in a respectful manner to get your point across.”
Fort Mill senior Stephen DeMayo, 17, used to feel sweaty and shaky when he had to speak in public. After four years of mock trial, he said, “I have less butterflies in my stomach, and I’m able to speak without having a shaky voice.”
During the competition, students present the prosecution and defense sides of a fictitious criminal case before a panel of local volunteer attorneys and judges. The competition usually alternates each year between criminal and civil cases.
All teams work on the same case, assigned by the bar association. The 2016 case focuses on arson, robbery and the murder of a well-known woman in a small, fictitious South Carolina town.
Students play the roles of prosecution and defense attorneys, witnesses, bailiffs and timekeepers, and each team is judged on its presentation skills, rather than the legal merits. Students prepare cases with guidance from local attorneys.
Attorney Garrett Johnson with Elrod Pope Law Firm, who helps coach the Fort Mill team, said students learn to analyze information and think on their feet. But he hopes they learn more.
“I hope they are getting character, because obviously, lawyers don’t have a really good reputation,” he said. “That’s something most people in the profession feel pretty keenly.”
Fort Mill graduate Walter Dusky, now an attorney with the York County public defender’s office and a mock trial coach for the school, was also a mock trial student.
That experience made a difference.
“It solidified my goal to become a lawyer,” he said, “and it certainly helped me understand what lawyers do, and how to prepare for cases.”
Other Fort Mill coaches are Ryan Newkirk with the York County Solicitor’s Office and 16th Circuit Deputy Public Defender B.J. Barrowclough. Teacher coaches are Beverly DeMayo and Ben Tyler.
Nation Ford attorney coach Mindy Lipinski, who works in Barrowclough’s office and also competed in mock trial in high school, said the experience helped her as a new attorney.
“Compared to people who didn’t have that experience, it’s something you can tell right off the bat,” she said.
Other coaches for the Nation Ford team are Rock Hill attorneys Nathan Sheldon and Gary Lemel, and teacher coaches are Jimmy Fitzpatrick and Dawn Lisk.
Nation Ford sophomore Muskan Vhadauria, 15, said students who portray attorneys in mock trial learn to think carefully about every aspect of their approach.
“You find a purpose,” she said. “Everything we do, we do for a reason.”
Jennifer Becknell: 803-329-4077