The bailiff was an earnest teenage boy. One attorney for the defendant was a 17-year-old girl. The witnesses were high-schoolers, their testimonies invented.
But when Gabrielino High School of San Gabriel beat James Monroe High School of North Hills in the Los Angeles County Mock Trial Competition finals Thursday, the tears were real.
"Our team completely flipped out, even the guys were crying, we were all so emotional," said Gabrielino team member Vanessa Menchaca, 17. "I was in the finals last year and when I was in eighth grade. Every time I got second. So to finally win my senior year was just absolutely moving, especially since we put in immeasurable amounts of work."
Superior Court Judge Ron Rose, who volunteered to preside over the trial at the county courthouse downtown praised both teams' performances.
"I thought the lawyers were outstanding -- so well-prepared, so articulate," Rose said to the courtroom filled with about 120 people, including friends and family members of the teams. "And I truly forgot that you're in high school."
Established more than 25 years ago by the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Constitutional Rights Foundation, the mock trial competition gives middle school and high school students a hands-on introduction to the courtroom. Each fall, a pamphlet detailing a hypothetical case is distributed to mock-trial participants who act as lawyers, clerks, witnesses, bailiffs, even courtroom artists.
"There's nothing better than the experience of actually preparing for court," said Jonathan Estrin, president of the foundation, which sponsors youth programs to promote civic responsibility. "Some of these young people may go into the law. Others will go on to other careers, but they're going to understand how the law works."
In the middle school division, Chaminade College Preparatory from Chatsworth beat Garvey Intermediate from Rosemead. Gabrielino will move on to the state competition in Riverside in the spring. The national championship will be held in Atlanta in May.