Lowell Mock Trial wins first place at Empire San Francisco 2017 competition

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Members of Lowell Mock Trial hoist their first place trophy. Photo courtesy of Cleo Blackketter

An African-American teenager was sentenced to six months in prison, where he was twice left in solitary confinement. Mentally scarred and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he committed suicide six weeks after his release. His mother took Prisons of Western America to court, representing her deceased son and his estate.

This was the example case Lowell Mock Trial and 27 other teams from two countries and 12 states tackled at Empire San Francisco, a prestigious invitational competition, on the weekend of Oct. 9. Winning 18 out of the 19 possible ballots, Lowell’s team took home first place for the second time in the past three years. They also brought home five additional individual awards.

Senior co-captain Jaden Jarmel-Schneider won first place attorney. Senior co-captain Cleo Blackketter won twelfth place attorney. Junior Lola Cleaveland and sophomore Emma Greene won second and fourth place witness, respectively. Senior Uma Krishnaswamy won fourth place as a guest witness.

The competition began on Oct. 6 with a meet-and-greet so the teams could familiarize themselves with their competitors and find out who they would be facing in the courtroom. In a process known as challenging, teams were placed in a random order and given the opportunity to choose which opponents they wanted to compete against first.

Winning 18 out of the 19 possible ballots, Lowell’s team took home first place for the second time in the past three years.

The following two days consisted of four preliminary rounds, with one plaintiff team, led by Blackketter, and one defense team, led by Jarmel-Schneider, with each team competing for one day. Following a disappointing loss at their last competition in the spring, the team was uncertain of how the tournament would pan out. “Going in we were thinking, ‘You know guys, I hope we make top 10. We’re going to try our best, we worked so hard,’” Blackketter said. “But then as we were going, we gained confidence.”

After winning their first round against a team from Texas, Lowell Mock Trial went on to beat opponents from Colorado, Minnesota and Florida, qualifying them for the final round against Lynbrook High School. Despite their apprehensions early on, the team “collected themselves and rose to the competition,” coach Michael Ungar said.

Winners of individual awards pose with trophies. From left to right: sophomore Emma Greene, senior Cleo Blackketter, senior Jaden Jarmel-Schneider, senior Uma Krishnaswamy and junior Lola Cleaveland. Photo courtesy of Cleo Blackketter

The team prepared intensely between rounds, running through their statements and examinations and performing various superstitious traditions such as knocking on wood for good luck before going into the each trial. In the end, the jury of volunteer attorneys turned in their ballots and Lowell defeated Lynbrook with a final score of 7–6.5 wins.

Jarmel-Schneider attributes much of Lowell Mock Trial’s success to their bond as a team. “We spent a lot of time outside mock trial hanging out and we all became pretty close friends,” he said. “And as corny as it sounds, I think that made us stand out.”

The Empire tournament stands separately from mock trial’s other big spring competition, County, and is unique as it is an invitational competition which brings together competitors spanning from to Louisiana to Hong Kong to Australia. It focuses on challenging teams with topical cases and providing them with a realistic experience of the legal system. In order to prepare for such an important tournament, the team began working on their case last July.

Under the tutelage of Ungar, who was once assistant district attorney before teaching history at Lowell, and Lisa Hathaway, a volunteer lawyer assigned by the Bar Association, this year’s team of eight attorneys and six witnesses honed their performance and legal skills at bi-weekly meetings downtown at Dentons law firm. Provided with a 300-page packet of physical evidence and fake legal documents, the team was tasked with analyzing difficult subjects such as psychological disorders, drug usage and excessive force from officers in order to write a persuasive and concise case.

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On the heels of Empire, the mock trial team held auditions on Oct. 17 and 18 in order to assemble the team of lawyers and witnesses for the next competition. Described by Jarmel-Schneider as “the perfect confluence between speech and debate, theater and public speaking,” mock trial drew in a record-breaking 45 people to auditions this year.

Only able to accept 18 team members and reluctant to turn away so many hopeful participants, Ungar and history teacher Matthew Bell have begun putting together a second mock trial team. This team “will become fully skilled in mock trial procedure so that they will be able to compete on their own and to step up to more experience team as its member graduate,” Ungar said. Though this new team will mainly be comprised of younger, less-experienced members, the coaches hope to have them compete on the same level among other schools in the city.