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LA MESA PLACES SECOND IN MOCK TRIAL COMPETITION.

Byline: Mary Schubert Daily News Staff Writer

On the bright side, their client was acquitted of charges she vandalized a school computer lab and changed her grade in a class. And on the brighter side, they came in second.

OK, so first place would have been nice, but La Mesa Junior High School students fared well in a monthlong mock trial competition that drew 27 teams from across Los Angeles County.

It all culminated Tuesday night with the final in Los Angeles Superior Court downtown. La Mesa's winning streak through several earlier rounds of competition came to a halt when they faced the team from St. Michael and All Angels, a tiny Episcopal school in Studio City.

The panel of three attorneys who judged the competition gave higher marks to the private school.

``Our students did extremely well for the first time out. I was very proud of them,'' said Rochelle Neal, principal at La Mesa. The team had to beat four other schools to get to the finals.

Neal added, ``They really deserve credit for so much hard work.''

Students who took part in the final ``trial'' were eighth-graders Jennifer Boschma, Marianne Paletz, Matt Walberg, Andy Wolfe and Jacklyn Yahiayan and seventh-graders Marcus Briscoe, Scott Madrigal and Cassie McGinnis.

About 30 other students had been involved in earlier rounds of the competition, which began last month. The Los Angeles-based Constitutional Rights Foundation sponsors the annual contests for junior high and high school students.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Enrique Romero presided over the final trial, in which La Mesa students were assigned the defense duties and the St. Michael's squad played the prosecution team.

In the fictional scenario, somebody broke into a high school computer lab, damaged equipment, scrawled an angry message in red paint and electronically changed student report card grades.

Police recover evidence including paint-splattered gloves and a secret computer password, all of which points to a disgruntled teen-ager, Casey Clevenger.

The mock trial exercise called for students to present a convincing case that would convict Casey if they were the prosecutors or exonerate the youth if they were assigned to the defense team.

The Los Angeles County contest was a qualifying step for the 16th annual California State Mock Trial Competition, scheduled for next April in Sacramento. The California champ will then advance to the national finals in Nashville.

Officials with the Constitutional Rights Foundation say the aim of the mock trials is to educate teens about the court system, to sharpen their critical thinking, logic and reasoning skills, and to learn how to debate convincingly.

During the past four weeks, volunteer panels of about 120 attorneys and judges have graded the students' performance and presided over the trials.

Romero was impressed by the performance of La Mesa's team, even though they finished second. ``They prevailed on the merits of the case. The defendant was acquitted,'' the Superior Court judge said.

Romero cited the students' ``poise'' and classified them an ``articulate'' group. In particular, he said the teens were quick-witted, adjusting their questioning of witnesses or the content of their closing remarks to reflect often impromptu developments that couldn't necessarily have been anticipated.

In other words, he said, they didn't seem tied to a rehearsed script.

And, Romero said, he treated the students as though they had completed college and law school and were arguing in his courtroom for real.

``I treated the case as if it were a trial,'' he said. ``I treated them they way I would treat any lawyer in my courtroom.''

Walberg, 13, played an attorney.

``I can argue very well. I like to cross-examine,'' he said, noting the mock trial competition was good practice for his budding acting career, which up to now has included voice-overs for cartoons and commercials, and parts as an extra in few movies.

Teams were scored on a scale of one to five in 15 categories, including their opening statement, witness performance, cross-examination, direct examination and closing arguments, said Elenor Taylor, co-director of the Constitutional Rights Foundation's law and government programs.

``They show a confidence and an ability to think on their feet that a lot of young people haven't developed,'' Taylor said of all the mock trial competitors.

CAPTION(S):

Photo

Photo: (color) These members of La Mesa Junior High's mock trial team placed second in a competition at Los Angeles Superior Court. A real judge presided as students played the roles of lawyers, defendant and witnesses to gain a first-hand look at the justice system.

Terri Thuente/Daily News
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 12, 1996
Words:755
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