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South-Central High School Makes a Strong Case

Manual Arts' Mock Trial competitors give elite suburban team a run for its money.

November 23, 2002|Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

The Manual Arts High School Toilers, who surprised naysayers by making it to the elite field of 16 finalist schools in the annual Los Angeles County Mock Trial Competition, learned this week that they did not advance to the contest's fourth round -- falling short by a single point.

The trial team members, who had gone farther in the student competition than any other entry from their South-Central Los Angeles school, were very disappointed, said coach and English teacher Alan Seigel.

The scrappy Toilers, who had bartered in the Fashion district's alley downtown to buy suits for the contest, faced teams from neighborhoods populated by real lawyers and judges.

On Tuesday night, Manual Arts faced the powerhouse squad from William S. Hart High School in Newhall in the fictional case People vs. Martin, in which cheating student Beck Martin stands accused of killing a tattletale.

Competing schools argue alternating sides of the case in rounds until only two teams are left. The teams vie for a chance to represent Los Angeles County in the state and national competitions.

Senior Jason Zepeda, who filled the role of the lead attorney on Manual Arts' team, delivered a stirring closing statement built around an extended metaphor.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Zepeda said as he coolly paced the courtroom. "The prosecution has painted a portrait of a murder. Let that portrait hang where it belongs, adorning the wall of Beck Martin's prison cell."

The theatrics weren't enough to put Manual Arts over the top, even with a perfect score for junior Emily Polanco's pretrial motion.

But Polanco said there's always next year.

"We've shown ourselves that we can do it, and there's nothing stopping us," she said.

Still, the loss didn't come without complaint. Some students said they were angry that senior Mayra Alcantar's sassy performance as witness Cody Ward, which elicited laughter and compliments, received a low score Tuesday.

"I know that something went wrong," Alcantar said. "Maybe they didn't write it down right. The points they took away from me were the points we needed to pass to the next level. They screwed me up and my school, and that's not cool."

But team members said they came away with a sense of achievement.

"Inside of us, I really feel like we've won," Zepeda said. "There's actually been something positive in the news about Manual Arts, since all this violence has been plaguing this neighborhood."

That violence and the police attention to it, he said, is "making me want to become a lawyer to really see to it that there's justice in the courts."

Now, Zepeda said, he's trying to think of something else for the group to do.

"Mock trial was something to keep us off the streets. Just for the sake of hanging together, we were thinking of creating a new program, maybe something having to do with drama."

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