Students tackle tough case in mock trial

Templeton High School student Jake Scott, playing Officer Doherty, a witness, answers questions as San Luis Obispo High student Andrea Hernandez, acting as the bailiff, places an exhibit during the mock trial competition on Saturday.
Templeton High School student Jake Scott, playing Officer Doherty, a witness, answers questions as San Luis Obispo High student Andrea Hernandez, acting as the bailiff, places an exhibit during the mock trial competition on Saturday. ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

It was the kind of case even a seasoned lawyer would have trouble arguing before a judge.

A high school student died after abusing the drug Adderall, and the case was complicated by the student’s pre-existing genetic heart defect and history of alcohol abuse. The person who supplied the drug was being tried for second-degree murder.

It wasn’t a real case, but it was the focus of a Saturday afternoon hearing at the San Luis Obispo County courthouse.

Six local high schools duked it out in the courtroom in the first of a series of hearings that make up the local trials of the California Mock Trial Program.

In this particular case, which was drafted by the nonprofit Constitutional Rights Foundation, high school students debate before a local attorney, who plays the role of judge, and a three-judge panel decides the winner based on the merits of the students’ arguments.

Students from Templeton High School handled the prosecution, and San Luis Obispo High School students represented the defense.

Six high school teams competed Saturday. Arroyo Grande High School beat North County Christian in Atascadero, and Mission Prep in San Luis Obispo topped Central Coast New Tech of Nipomo. But the most-heated competition happened in Department 5 before Nancy Warren, a San Luis Obispo-based attorney.

Templeton and San Luis Obispo high schools have a bit of a history; they’ve competed against each other in the county final rounds each of the past four years, with Templeton winning in 2010 and 2012, and San Luis Obispo emerging victorious in 2011 and 2013.

On Saturday, fictional defendant “Rae Concha,” played by San Luis Obispo High School student Annie McNulty, was accused of running a drug-dealing ring at a local high school campus. To compound matters, a student, “Jason Johnson,” had recently died after consuming an undetermined amount of Adderall, used to treat attention deficit disorder, and his best friend was being tried for murder.

The case was based on a “21 Jump Street”-style situation in which an undercover police officer, played by student Jake Scott, infiltrated a local school to find out who was supplying “Addy” to students. The police officer became friends with Concha, and after establishing probable cause, searched Concha’s car in the school parking lot to find six Ziplock baggies of Adderall and a money clip on the back seat.

But wait! The officer first discovered the paraphernalia by standing on a front tire to peek through a cracked window, creating a constitutional search-and-seizure question. Throw in a spurned former best friend and you have a case where nothing is as it seems and a question exists about whether a crime was committed in the first place.

Templeton High School students Kaylinn Charnley and Sam Hjerrild opened the case, opposing a defense counsel motion to exclude all evidence by the officer, which San Luis Obispo High School’s team argued was collected unconstitutionally.

“Judge” Warren said she would, in real life, agree with the defense, but the mock trial went on for the sake of the competition.

There were contradictory witnesses, including the undercover police officer, who was less than convincing, and the defendant’s former best friend who may or may not have had a motive to frame the defendant.

In the end, San Luis Obispo won the verdict, which Warren said clearly established a reasonable doubt of guilt for the defendant. But, just as it plays out in court, the end result wasn’t as clear-cut. Templeton scored higher among the judges and won the event.

The three judges — local attorneys and paralegals — applauded the students.

“The amount of work each and every one of you have put into this is just astonishing,” said Kelly Mandarino, one of three judges to score the event. She’s a prosecutor with the county District Attorney’s Office who specializes in narcotics cases.

Following the hearing, both teams had the opportunity to award the most outstanding opponent. Templeton High School student Charnley and San Luis Obispo High School sophomore Ruby Callahan took the prizes.

Mission Prep instructor Evan O’Reilly, who volunteers to counsel students in the competition, said the program helps students get a real-life look at the ins and outs of legal proceedings.

He said the annual event wouldn’t be possible without the help of the courthouse staff and local attorneys who donate their time in helping students find their legal voices.

“The attorneys are the lifeblood of this,” O’Reilly said.

Mock trial semifinals continue this week, with finals set for Feb. 13.