Sitka High is the Alaska Mock Trial champion — again.
Two Sitka teams traveled to Anchorage to compete in the all-schools tournament last weekend , and brought home first-place and fourth-place trophies.
It’s the fourth state championship for the 10-year old program at Sitka High School.
The last bell of the afternoon has rung and Sitka High’s championship mock trial team is gathering in the classroom of their head coach, Social Studies teacher Howard Wayne, for a press conference.
“My name is Aani Perkins, and I’m a senior.”
Perkins is co-captain of the team. Mock Trial is an intellectual team competition, but the pressure on individual performances is huge. Think of it as a swim meet, where students challenge the choppy waters of the law. In this case, a civil trial involving a legal principle called “adverse possession.”
“So there are three attorneys and three witnesses, and each of them gets various scores throughout,” Perkins explains. “Each attorney gets a score for how well they direct-examined a witness, and how well they cross-examined an opposing witness. And then witnesses get scores for how well they do on direct, and how well they deflect on cross, basically. And then you also have your opening and your closing speeches. So for my team I gave the opening, and Joe gave the closing.”
“Joe” is Joe Pate, a senior and Perkins’s co-captain. Pate is also a state champion debater — but he says the two events have more differences than similarities.
“Unlike debate, you do know before you go into the courtroom what side you’re going to be on,” said Pate, “but it’s not that helpful especially considering the finals we only knew about 10 or 15 minutes before we went in. So it’s fast preparation, trying to get your mind set to which side you’re arguing, because it’s easy to get confused.”
And the other differences between mock trial and debate are 1) the judges are real attorneys and judges, rather than volunteers from the public, 2) the competition is held in the actual Alaska Supreme Court chambers, rather than in a classroom, and 3) the state tournament is the only time mock trial holds a competition, whereas debate competitions are held over a season of several months, allowing students to hone their skills.
Perkins says the intensity of mock trial is overwhelming, and she has to remind herself to eat over the tournament weekend, which may involve six trials lasting up to two hours each.
“In terms of the work and preparation beforehand in order to win: I don’t know, we just spent all day Thursday and Friday just working with our teams and making sure our case was cohesive and all together, and everybody just felt prepared going in,” she said.
Teams — plural — may be the secret behind Sitka’s success in defeating all four of Anchorage’s large high schools, West, South, East, and West Valley. A few years ago head coach Howard Wayne created a second Sitka team in order to scrimmage. They held three practice trials in front of Sitka’s judiciary, and the top scorers in those scrimmages formed the team which ultimately took the state title.
Besides Howard Wayne, Sitka’s team is coached by Sitka High mock trial alumni Owen Fulton, who’s student teaching in Social Studies this year, and by Americorps volunteers Abe Kanter and Ashley Nessler, who just graduated from DeSales University in Center Valley, Pennsylvania.
Nessler competed in mock trial at the collegiate level. She jumped at the chance to work with Sitka’s students.
“When I interviewed for the job initially I was talking to Ms. Rogers, who’s the principal here, and she mentioned that there was a mock trial team,” said Nessler, “and I told her — mid-senior year of college — that I would be on the next flight out, hearing that there was a mock trial team. It’s something that’s very hard to walk away from. It’s a vortex you get pulled into, with competing, and the stress — it’s probably the most stressful part of your entire life.”
But it’s also clear at this press conference that mock trial is fun. Amra Kojic, a junior exchange student from the Balkan nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, says the event transformed a random group of students into close-knit friends. Kojic competed in the role of an expert witness in land surveying and boundary law. It turns out that adverse possession — where someone can legally claim ownership of land simply by using it — plays out a little differently in Kojic’s part of the world.
“The problem in Balkan countries is that even if somebody’s using the land, somebody else will take it. So, that’s the difference,” said Kojic.
None of Sitka High’s mock trial competitors expressed a firm interest in pursuing the legal profession in the future, but they all say they now really enjoy talking about the law — as long as it’s not about adverse possession!
“We’re happy to win it, but now when someone mentions ‘land dispute’ we’re like… oh god!” said Kojic, laughing along with her teammates.