The case was murder. The defendant, a comic who allegedly strangled a critic, was on the stand.
The chatter in the packed courtroom died down as the trial commenced and the audience listened with rapt attention, hanging on the words uttered by the lawyers and witnesses during the most dramatic moments.
“Did you kill Preston Palmer?” asked defense attorney Kayla Clark, of Templeton High.
“No,” responded Sammar Smesme of Templeton High, playing the role of comedian and alleged murderer Jordan Bratton.
Mock trial isn’t based on an actual case, but the story and characters involved seem to come to life. Thursday’s final county competition featured teams from San Luis Obispo High School and Templeton High School.
The 16 students in Thursday’s competition dressed in formal business suits and dresses — just as professional lawyers do — and played the roles of attorneys, witnesses, bailiffs, and clerks.
The lawyers argued about what evidence should be allowed into the court, fired off questions to witnesses according to procedural guidelines and made riveting closing arguments.
A perennial powerhouse over the past decade, Templeton High was judged the winner and will move on to the state competition in San Jose held March 19-21.
This year’s fictional case hinged on whether a comic committed a murder after receiving a bad review on two Web sites, Twitter and the fictional YellUp site (a word play on the actual Yelp Web site) from a critic who played a large hand in derailing her career.
Key to the case were tire tracks from the defendant’s vehicle found at the critic’s residence, gloves allegedly used in the strangling, and Bratton’s alibi.
San Luis Obispo High students Colette Willard, Emily Tomac, and Maia Vernacchia led the prosecution’s team of lawyers. Templeton High students Kayla Clark and Sierra Swan headed up the defense.
Judge Dodie A. Harman — who presides over actual Superior Court trials — heard the case, addressing the students formally, saying “Ms. Swan” or “Ms. Vernacchia.”
“I hope that some of you become lawyers someday,” Harman told the students after she rendered a “not guilty” verdict.
This year’s event involved 150 local adults who helped stage the competition and about 250 to 300 students from seven high schools and six middle schools, said John Fricks, a local attorney who chairs the event, which is coordinated by the county Office of Education.
Local attorneys spent 30 to 60 hours total helping students prepare for the event. Teacher coaches also put in dozens of hours.
Judging was conducted by local attorneys who observed the trial and assessed presentation and legal maneuvering.
Fricks said the competition helps some students to decide about a possible future in law, but that’s not the point.
“They learn critical thinking and analysis, public speaking, the ability to think on their feet,” Fricks said. “They also gain an understanding of the judicial system, some substantive constitutional law, and the adversarial process.”
This year’s middle school champion, also determined Thursday, was Judkins in Pismo Beach, with Templeton taking runner-up honors.