Eastside students make Paterson's debut in Mock Trial competition
PATERSON – About three months ago, 17-year-old Marlene Rodriguez spotted a flier at Eastside high school recruiting members for a mock trial team
“I had never heard of a mock trial, but I joined right away,” said the student at Eastside’s School of Government and Public Administration. “I’m very into the criminal justice system. I am interested in learning about anything that has to do with law and government.”
This week, Rodriguez and her nine mock trial teammates became part of Eastside history. They are competing in the Passaic County mock trial competition, and Paterson school officials say this is the first time the district has entered a team in the simulated courtroom event.
The first round started Tuesday night at the Passaic County courthouse in downtown Paterson and will continue on Thursday. The four teams that emerge from the first round will then compete in the county semifinals. Eventually, a national champion gets crowned.
The Paterson students are pumped up about the experience.
“I have a passion for fighting, but in an organized way,” said Christopher Cristobal, a 16-year old sophomore. “When I act as a lawyer I feel serious and have powers that people can’t take away from me. I believe that people should have consequences for the way they act and have punishment for what they have done. We’re the first team to come out of Paterson. I want to make our school proud.”
The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of study, preparation, and practice for the Eastside team. But the preparation started long ago. Helen Tuttle, a lawyer from the firm Drinker Biddle & Reath, and other members of her firm have visited with the Paterson students for months helping them prepare. The students also have spent long hours preparing with Eastside social studies teacher Joe Moreno.
On Tuesday, the Eastside students competed against Noble Academy from the City of Passaic. On Thursday, they will go against Wayne Valley High School’s team. The mock trials are free and open to the public.
Victory in the competition is not contingent on winning or losing the fictitious legal case. Students are scored on their ability to follow courtroom procedure and handling the facts of the case.
“The most difficult part about doing this mock trial is that you not only have to worry about your own part, but also the roles of everyone else,” 16-year old Eastside sophomore Desirae Hazel said. “You have to put pieces together. You have to think on your feet because you might get an unexpected question from the witness, the plaintiff, or the defendant.”
“You can rehearse as many questions as you want,” Hazel added, “but if you get an answer you did not expect you have to be ready to throw another question at them to get the answer for the information you want.”
Eastside junior, Jessie Cheramy has participated in many school clubs before. But the 16-year-old said the mock trial experience has been one of her greatest challenges.
“You have to act in formal fashion. There is a certain way to act in court, including mannerisms,” Cheramy said. “It’s like speaking to the prime minister or the president. You have to show respect. You have to know how to convince people. Public speaking is very important. There is tons of pressure.”
Karen Johnson, principal of the School of Government at Eastside, said the students’ initial courtroom drama – when some performed last school year in a non-competition at the federal courthouse in Newark - served as a catalyst for some to consider pursuing a career in law.
“When the opportunity arose to compete in a competition against other high schools, we jumped at the chance,” Johnson said.
Sophomore Zaire Lee Dixon is the newest member of the team, joining just a week ago. “One of the participants had to drop out, so I was able to join the team,” he said.
“My teammates have been great in helping me catch up,” the sophomore said. “I represent the plaintiff in the trial. There were 6 pages with 400 lines that I had to study. I reread it over and over.”