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Young Barristers Breaking Barriers

The jury is still out, but a mock trial team is making its case for being among the elite.

November 19, 2002|Daniel Hernandez and Geoffrey Mohan | Times Staff Writers

Their first oral arguments were with the suit seller in the alley shop in downtown Los Angeles.

They had $200 and they needed two suits for a court appearance.

By the time these dozen or so Manual Arts High School students were done, they had talked their way into jackets, pants, shirts, vests and ties.

By the time they left Los Angeles County Superior Court last Tuesday, the teenagers had persuaded a jury that Beck Martin hadn't killed anybody.

Now these budding barristers, with more moxie than money, are a few arguments away from being declared the best high school lawyers in Los Angeles County. They are the surprise survivors of the first two rounds in Los Angeles County's 25th annual Mock Trial Competition, knocking off teams from neighborhoods where real lawyers and judges live.

Manual Arts has a team name, the Toilers, that suggests the destiny of the student body lies with the members' hands rather than their heads. But the school's mock trial team has stood such expectations on end, showing off members' public speaking skills and familiarity with the law.

A few years ago, the school didn't even send a squad to the tournament, in which high school students play witnesses, experts and litigators and argue a fake case before actual judges, as well as juries consisting of Los Angeles attorneys.

"I guess we have the hunger, you know, to play into those stereotypes that we can't compete as far as intellectual things go," said Jason Zepeda, 17, the team's star of closing arguments, whose eloquence nearly brought his "client" to genuine tears. He said the team has surprised opponents with sharp motions and dramatic arguments.

If Manual High successfully prosecutes the fictional Martin (played by sophomore team member Ricardo Elorza, 15) tonight, the team will be in the quarterfinals.

If the teenagers make their case twice more, they will represent Los Angeles County in the state competition.

"We are dedicated," Zepeda added. "We do have heart. There's no reason why we shouldn't advance pretty far."

Few can remember the last time a team from Manual Arts got to the "super 16," down from the 68 schools that began the competition. If the Toiler team could bill the time members stole from part-time jobs and home chores to prepare for the competition -- 20 hours a week since September -- they would be riding in limousines to the downtown courthouse.

Instead, they arrive in a school bus with taped-up seats, while some of their suburban adversaries step to the curb from air-conditioned coaches equipped with DVD players. The Toilers, who attend the school across from the Coliseum, purposely swagger into the courtroom like street toughs, carrying their work in manila folders, while competitors clutch monogrammed case books and laptops.

"We're not rich around here. A lot of the students couldn't buy the latest fashions," Zepeda said. "Some of them snickered and laughed and asked, 'Oh, what's Manual doing here?' But we actually felt confident going in. Once you're up there, you just let it flow."

Emily Polanco, the team's expert in pretrial motions, had her doubts. "We didn't think we were going to make it," the 16-year-old junior said. "Normally the stereotypes say that kids from here don't do very well in anything, but this is showing that we can do well."

In her own way, Polanco represents the team's cool ambition. She wears a Yale sweater to school and said she will be applying there, as well as to Harvard and Princeton. Just as matter-of-factly, she said her mother is a security guard and her father is a trucker.

Team members are mostly sons and daughters of immigrants -- 14 Latinos, one Vietnamese and one biracial Pacific Islander. Nearly all live in South Los Angeles and most expect to be the first in their families to attend college.

They don't care whether their opponents tonight turn out to be perennial front-runner Louisville, the all-girls Catholic school on Mulholland Drive or the powerhouse William S. Hart High School team from Newhall. "They're all the same," said Tuan Uong, 17, a Manual Arts senior. "We just have to go in there and do the best we can."

Toiler team members are coached by English and journalism teacher Alan Seigal. For extra help, attorneys from the downtown firm Skaddin, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom visit the campus to help the team deal with written motions, difficult witnesses and legal surprises.

And, of course, there is the look. Trials are "all about presentation, attire," Uong said. "As much as they say it doesn't matter, it does."

Teams are graded on a point system by participating lawyers and judges on pretrial motions, team performance, opening and closing statements and cross-examination.

Despite their bravado, the Toilers were bracing for failure last week. When Seigal announced their second round victory over Damien High School, a private boys school from La Verne, there was a stunned silence.

"When we heard we moved on, it didn't hit me," Uong said.

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