TOMS RIVER – Ten Southern Regional High School students found themselves before judges on a recent Saturday – on a day when the Ocean County Courthouse traditionally remains locked tight.
The nine young women and one young man attempted to mask their apprehension – unrelated to any worries they could wind up behind bars.
As team members of one of the eight Ocean County schools participating in the Vincent J. Apruzzese High School Mock Trial Competition, each of the students assumed assigned roles. Four donned suits as attorneys prepared to represent their clients in a civil case. A plaintiff, a defendant, and four witnesses were ready to give testimony and even the prospect of grueling cross-examination by opposing counsel.
Attorneys John Ducey, Stacie Brustman and Taylor Toscano led the organization of Ocean County’s mock trials, which are also held statewide. Several superior court judges and practicing attorneys all volunteered their time in various capacities.
Southern Regional’s in-house coach teaches both history and Latin. However, it just so happens that Joe Spirito also graduated from Drexel Law School. Additionally, local family law attorney Kristen Henninger Holland devotes a considerable amount of time sharing the ins and outs of the courtroom.
After all, there’s a huge difference between criminal justice television dramas and the real deal.
Teams are only identified by numbers during the competition. The Southern Ocean Times requested the courtroom assignments of Southern Regional without any information concerning their adversarial teams.
Courtrooms were opened to the public and just about filled to capacity. No one seemed to want to miss the action.
Sofia LaPointe and Allison Go went through the first round of the competition and entered their appearances as attorneys for the defendant, Sam Arena (Rachel Perry) before Superior Court Judge David M. Fritch. Attorney Carrie Smith also participated as a judge during the presentation before the court.
Although New Jersey civil cases usually seat eight jurors with six deliberating, only five students were seated in the jury box and came up with their verdicts quite quickly.
The case assigned to all of the participants involved a wrong death matter stemming from an “energy drink” challenge that allegedly resulted in the death of the plaintiff’s grandson. All of the competitors went from opening arguments, witness testimony, to closing arguments.
Judge Fritch offered some constructive criticism after the first round was over, starting with the positioning the attorneys chose to assume.
“When you’re doing your opening, always face the jury because they’re the ones who you need to convince to believe in your client,” said Fritch. “I understand why you’re facing me, but for the future just play to the jury.”
Smith suggested that the attorneys needed to slow down and not talk so fast. The comment made perfect sense although presentations were timed and it seemed to be a race against the clock.
Both teams were commended for a job well done.
The second round found Daniel Stafford and Lexi Scully as attorneys for the plaintiff, Dylan Salerno, (Andonia Golinski) portrayed the grandmother of the decedent.
Attorneys Craig Newman and Heidi Tannenbaum-Newman acted as judges for the second round. Interestingly, the husband and wife team consist of a criminal defense attorney and an assistant prosecutor.
The same set of five jurors sat for the last round of the Southern Regional mock trials.
At the conclusion of Round II, the Newmans reiterated what competitors heard in the First Round.
“Slow down, breathe, just breathe,” Craig reminded. “Slow yourself down so that the jury can understand.”
“Redirects are good because the other side may have made a point because someone spoke too fast about it,” shared Heidi. “Bring that question back out so that they can hear the main point you want to bring out.”
Students who portrayed witnesses during the two rounds included Kiley Cassidy, Meri Cassidy, Emily Renner, and Makena Bentivegna.
The Southern Regional Mock Trial team didn’t make it to the semi-finals, but that’s not to say they didn’t walk away as winners with some valuable lessons. One of the best was the importance of being passionate about what they loved. Another was understanding that the best laid plans can easily blow up and require change.
Other schools participating in the Ocean County Mock Trials included Brick Township, Brick Memorial, Central Regional, Jackson Liberty, Jackson Memorial, Southern Regional, MATES, and the Ocean County Academy of Law and Public Safety.
Jackson Memorial and MATES made it to the final round and competed for the win after this paper went to press.