TOMS RIVER – It was a tragic case. Zach Simon was dead, a victim of an overdose of heroin and fentanyl. The State was trying to pin his death on his alleged drug dealer, Dana Martin.
The case played out before two judges in the historic courthouse in Toms River. But the judges weren’t deciding Dana Martin’s fate. They were deciding which high school team did a better job of trying the case.
It was all part of a mock trial. Area schools sent teams to compete, with the two finalists – Brick Memorial and Central Regional – facing off on Jan. 31.
Each county runs a competition, and the winner goes to the regional competition, said John Ducey, an attorney overseeing the competition, and the mayor of Brick. The winner of the regional competition would go on to the state finals.
It was intentional to make the case relevant to current events, he said. The state is in the midst of an opioid epidemic and similar cases are happening today.
Each school has a teacher and an attorney who coached the team, he said.
In the finals, the defense, portrayed by Brick, reminded the jury that the burden of proof lies with the prosecution, and that much of the evidence was circumstantial.
The prosecution, portrayed by Central, stacked up the evidence against the defendant: “Opiates are killers. There’s a dealer that delivered the fatal blow to the victim and that Dana Martin is that dealer.”
The jury deliberated in a jury room and returned to present their decision: that Martin was guilty of one but not all of the charges. But that wasn’t what was important. What the student attorneys really wanted to know is who the judges thought did a better job handling the case.
Judges Robert Brenner and Mark Troncone complimented both teams on their hard work and focus. They also gave tips on making eye contact with the jury, projecting your voice, controlling a witness, and what to do if you disagree with a judge.
They noted that it was a very close match, but that Central edged out ahead of Brick.
Jamie Ward, 12th grade, and Isabella Triolo, 10th grade, were Central’s prosecutors for the case. They learned a lot from this trial.
Ward spoke about leadership and doing more than she realized she could.
“Things never go the way they are expected,” Triolo said.
Central Regional history teacher Scott Alfano teaches 8th grade but is the advisor for the high school’s club the “Legal Eagles,” named after the school’s mascot the Golden Eagle. He said it was the third time he had taken a team to the county finals. Five years ago, they lost to Brick Memorial.
Cynthia Lin, 10th grade, and Brandon Murphy, 11th grade, were the defense team for Brick.
“You have to think on your feet,” Lin said. “You have to come back to what the witness said.”
Murphy said he joined the team to get better at public speaking, but also learned that you have to balance listening to the witness while also thinking of what you’re going to say next.