Concluding months of preparation, students from 15 area high schools congregated at the Ventura County courthouse Monday evening to begin the first phase of an intense three-day Mock Trial Competition.
Dressed in dark suits and carrying briefcases, about 300 students filed into eight courtrooms to argue their cases before nearly 100 local judges and attorneys who volunteered as scorekeepers for the 14th annual event.
Students play the roles of attorneys, witnesses and courtroom staff as they argue a real-life criminal case.
Finalists will face off later this week when four teams are picked to compete in the final rounds. The winners travel to Sacramento in April for a statewide competition.
"I'm a little nervous, but I think we are ready," said La Reina High School freshman Jennifer Marshall, standing beside her teammates in the back of a packed courtroom. "I think we should do pretty well."
The event rivals the intensity of any sporting match as teenagers test their mettle in the courtroom.
In addition to honing their skills at debate and public speaking, judges and attorneys say the mock trials give students a crash course in pre-law and a finer understanding of the criminal justice system.
"As a civic exercise, it is a hands-on experience on how a trial is run--they have to become familiar with rules of evidence and rules of law," said Superior Court Judge Steven Z. Perren, who has organized the event since its inception in 1983.
"I think if you are getting kids involved in the process, they become invested in the process," he said. "It gets more than fierce, it gets downright in the trenches. They get intense and combative."
The pressure weighed heavy on the underdog team from Buena High School, which finished third last year.
"There's a lot more pressure going into this than a lot of people realize," said senior Jeff Gavenman, who has represented his Ventura team for the last three years.
"I had nightmares about it," added Buena senior Angelina Sanderson, who captured an individual first-place award last year.
Most teams begin preparing for the mock trials in the fall. In October, they are given a case that deals with a range of legal issues. This year, teams from Thousand Oaks to Ventura were given the following trial scenario:
A high school student whose grade was lowered by a computer science teacher is accused of vandalizing the classroom to change her grade in the computer. The charges are felony vandalism and computer tampering, and the students are told to raise issues of search and seizure.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Donald C. Glynn has coached powerhouse La Reina High School for seven years, during which the all-girls school from Thousand Oaks captured first place five times. La Reina won last year and placed 10th out of 27 high schools at the state level.
"My kids are very motivated," Glynn said. "The girls that play the attorney spots are all 3.5 to 4.0 students."
Some students have parlayed that experience into college and law school. Glynn has former students in law school at Cornell University and UCLA. One recently graduated from Stanford's law school.
"They don't get into this with the idea of going into law school," he said. "It is just another extracurricular activity. It is a lot of fun," Glynn said.
Some students, however, see their trial experience as the first step toward legal careers.
"It is basically a primer for law school," said Buena's Jeff Gavenman. "Thinking on your feet--that's one of the big things you get from this."
Scoring is not based on whether a team wins or loses the trial but on how each individual performs his or her part.
Although La Reina has dominated the competition in the past, one of its top student-lawyers graduated last year, leaving a young team behind. Other schools are gunning to unseat the champions.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Bamieh has told every lawyer in earshot that his Buena High School squad will unseat the champions.
"We are going to do real well," the confident coach said. "I believe I coach the best team in this competition. Over the next three days, we'll prove it."
But an equally confident Glynn dismissed Bamieh's bragging.
"He has been trying for a couple of years to beat La Reina," Glynn said.