by Felice Cat-Tuong Luu
Smiles on, nerves rattling, the Franklin High School (FHS) varsity mock trial team stood in a pre-game huddle. T-minus five minutes until show time and teammates checked each other’s uniforms, making sure they looked the part while their coach gave a few words of encouragement. The hours they poured into looking crisp, clean, and confident showed.
Last weekend, all three FHS teams advanced to semifinals and its varsity team continued to sweep the tournament, beating even national champion and cross-town rival Seattle Preparatory School. As one of the top two teams of this year’s competitors, Franklin High’s varsity team stood ready to face off against Bellevue’s International School for the district champion title. In the King County District Courthouse, the court’s doors opened Monday night, and both teams walked into their final round at the King County YMCA Mock Trial District Tournament.
Mock trial isn’t a typical afterschool activity, but that doesn’t make it any less demanding or challenging. Like the name might suggest, it’s a game that plays at the court of law. Imagine your favorite crime drama, or an episode of Law and Order. Teams face off against each other in condensed trials, ranging anywhere between two and three hours, arguing a fictional case in front of real lawyers and judges who score the round.
Coaches and straggling spectators shimmied into the already crowded courtroom. The teams strode in with heads held high to greet each other and prepare for the sure-to-be intense trial. I was setting up my notebook when one of the audience members said, “Look, it’s a historical moment.”
Judge William Downing entered the courtroom, and it was his last trial. Downing is a retired, Superior Court Judge. He was the first trial-court judge to rule the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, which allowed the civil rights issue to gain traction in the courts. Downing also wrote the YMCA mock trial cases during his 28 years as a judge in King County.
The bailiff called the courtroom to attention and there was a visible shift in the atmosphere as both teams put on their game faces. Everything in the past week boiled down to this moment and neither side was going down without a fight.
If either team was nervous, it wasn’t noticeable in the way they strode up to the bench to present pre-trial arguments. This is where the pre-trial attorney argues a motion alone in front of the judge, relying on their wit and knowledge of case law in the face of the judge’s interrogation. It’s a one-on-one debate between a high school student and practiced judges.
Watching the exchange, it’s easy to think of countless counterarguments and responses to the judge’s questions, but in the moment, in the spotlight, trying to roll with the punches, it feels a lot more like tangling with a steamroller. Elizabeth Huse, however, let go of her nerves and recovered swiftly after every road block Downing threw at her.
After valiant efforts from both attorneys to sway the judge in their favor, the defense motion brought by FHS was denied, but in the realm of mock trial, it’s the points that matter. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone in that room who could declare a definite victor from that round.
Next came opening statements, where attorneys set the scene and try persuading the judge and jury. In less than 10 minutes, FHS student Cora Patz sold the defense’s case.
Physically, Patz doesn’t look intimidating, but the way she told the story of a tragic accident had me hooked like a fish. She could have told me Cruella Deville is just a misunderstood person who wants to be fashionably warm, and I would have started a Cruella Deville fan club right then and there. Patz’s tone and cadence, the way she held the jurors’ eyes and literally walked through her opening was a level of skill expected at collegiate mock trial.
Then direct examination began. Each team had four witness-attorney pair examinations where they presented the witness’ assigned testimony in a Q&A. In between each direct examination is a cross-examination from the opposing counsel. The goal is to weave a cohesive story among the witnesses while staying true to their testimonies and appearing likable to the jurors.
While Franklin High’s attorneys had to deal with some squirrelly witnesses during cross examinations, the team kept their composure. Patz and Huse continued in their attorney roles with the addition of Rachel Kaftan, commanding the attention of the court while pulling vital pieces of information for the defense’s case from the prosecution’s witnesses.
The terrifying part about cross-examination is questioning people you’ve never practiced with before. But the way Franklin High’s team shot out question after question showed an intimate understanding of the case and the law through hours of studying the material. Even when a team member stumbled, others sat at the ready with notes, scanning for discrepancies.
The talent kept coming with FHS witnesses. Even though they were born from less than 10 pages of pure testimony, each student acted as a three-dimensional person on the stand. Ami Diouf was a“kid-adverse” and snarky microbiologist. Alex Welsh was a Scottish philosophy professor with jokes. Sumaya Faqi was a bubbly and under-tipped barista. Quinn Angelou-Lysaker became a practical and very much believable defendant. Between the four students, FHS ran the whole gamut of characters, each of them able to have a career in theatre if they so desired.
The part that speaks most to the team’s level of performance was the way the witnesses never showed panic, even during questions that seemed damning for their case. There was an implicit trust between witnesses and attorneys to protect each other; attorneys trusted witnesses to remember their testimony and frame answers in favor of their case and witnesses trusted attorneys to object to out-of-line questions and redirect any opposing points the counsel may have pried from cross-examination.
After every witness said their piece, drama student extraordinaire Kaftan walked in for her closing argument. She tied FHS’s defense story together, employing advanced mock trial skills by riffing off of the International’s prosecution theme to favor the defendant.
The trial finally concluded, and Downing instructed the jurors to tally their ballots. The courtroom erupted in applause, and tension visibly left the students in rushing breaths. They did their part in finishing the final district trial, and now it was up to tabulations to announce a victor. After approximately 15 minutes, everyone cleared out of the courtroom to move to the 9th floor for the moment of truth.
Each school’s teammates recapped the trial with each other, giving commentary on “I couldn’t believe that…” moments, and noting who the other side’s cutest witnesses were. High schoolers will be high schoolers, no matter how fierce they are in court. In an activity that demands so much focus and requires maturity even some law students don’t have, it was refreshing to see these students out of character and being regular teenagers dressed up in fancy suits and colorful hijabs.
Even more refreshing was seeing these students cry out in victory after four rounds of trials. In an impressive feat, the FHS varsity mock trial team won the YMCA Mock Trial District Tournament for King County and returned home as the undefeated district champions.
Downing noted that Franklin High School has a history of excellence at mock trial, dating back to the 90s.
“This year’s team is amazing,” he said. “I’ve seen these students, who are seniors now, since they were freshmen.”
The judge ruminated on the students’ growth throughout the years.
“I see great things for them, both in Olympia at the tournament ahead and in their futures, college and beyond,” Downing said. “I’m just so gratified to see all of the students that have been through the program over the last 28 years out in the community now, being better citizens, better jurors, better consumers of the media, all sorts of things as a result of their time in mock trial. I’m so gratified when people report back to me how well they’re doing.”
Franklin High School earned the maximum two bids to state and will represent Seattle with six other King County teams at the statewide tournament in Olympia later this month.
Felice Cat-Tuong Luu is a third-year communications and international studies major at the University of Washington. She is involved in the Vietnamese community through the Vietnamese Student Association and the art scene through clubs and internships from school. Felice also enjoys learning languages and has most recently attempted learning Portuguese. She lives in South Seattle and is currently interning with the Emerald.
Featured image courtesy of Franklin High School