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Mock Trial team explores long-standing legal precedents with present-day implications

The facts of the case are timely: a COVID-related job loss, the subsequent inability of a tenant to pay rent and a pending eviction. A snake in a mailbox as a murder weapon does bring some sensationalism into the midst but it certainly adds to a lively discussion. What if the snake slithered in the mailbox by itself? Or could this have been a prank gone wrong? And if it was placed there intentionally to injure, could it be considered a premeditated murder, even though snake bites are rarely fatal? This is the heated discussion of Mayfield Senior School’s Mock Trial team, as they are preparing for their upcoming case this March.
 
The nine students who signed up for this year’s team are a determined and dedicated group. They meet after school three times a week with mentor Dr. Elliott Piros, who is also Mayfield’s new Latin teacher. Unlike other clubs or councils, this group doesn't exactly set its own agenda. Every school in California who participates in the Constitutional Rights Foundation’s (CRF) Mock Trial program receives the same instructions and materials. Students sort through a tremendous amount of documentation about a fictional legal case and then mount a defense, prepare a prosecution, role-play the characters of the accused, the witnesses, and even the judge! All of this preparation comes to a head when they square off with an opposing team from another school in front of a real judge. The scoring is conducted by other legal professionals, practicing and retired attorneys who dedicate their time to help train a new generation of legal minds. Under normal circumstances, Mock Trial cases take place in actual courtrooms, but like in many other actual courtrooms, the proceedings will be hosted on Zoom this year.

Although the case the Mayfield team is working on is imaginary, the story design allows plenty of real human emotion to surface. The defendant is accused of ending the life of his landlord, either by manslaughter or murder, but the backstory provided by the CSF paints the defendant, who has been living with his sick mother, as the more sympathetic character. And the landlord was not just apathetic—his dislike of the tenant bordered on the cruel and paranoid. He installed hidden cameras to spy on the tenant and even occasionally cut the apartment’s electricity off. During one of those deliberate, arbitrary power cuts, the tenant’s mother went into cardiac arrest and died. The circumstances of her death were never taken to court...

The word “motive” is uttered as the students talk amongst themselves. Returning team member Emily Vargas ’22, whose mother works as a trial lawyer, plays an active role in today’s discussion. “I also would like to go to law school, but not for criminal law,” explains Emily, who was thrilled when the group reconvened this year. “I've learned a lot. All of it is really exciting and engaging,” she adds. And even though there is a lot of research to do, it is clear there is never a dull moment. 

Dr. Piros loves watching the way the students are able to form their passionate, personal opinions of the case, and then observe as they fashion those impressions into precise legal arguments, following constitutional guidelines. The legal case doesn’t “ignore the problem” but “the law finds a neutral way to talk about it” providing the precise “language for a productive solution.”

Dr. Piros, who also teaches at Cal State University, Northridge, says he is ever-impressed with Mayfield students, who in some ways are even “more dedicated” than his university students. He doesn’t have much law experience outside of legal dramas on television, though being a classicist gives him a leg up with some of the Latin terminology. He sees his Mock Trial students as having “good instincts for what makes a good argument” and has great appreciation for the way the CRF program’s framework brings order to potentially explosive topics.

There is a steep learning curve as students start to study and understand long-standing legal precedents, and apply these often outdated scenarios to their all-too-human present day. The students seem to enjoy finding the balance. “Learning about the different objections was really interesting,” says Tamtawan “Venice” Jithavech ’24. “I've always heard attorneys object to different things in movies, but I never actually knew why they made them.”

Although Venice hasn’t thought much about law as a career yet, Natalie Hanna ’22 already sees practical applications of what is happening in this room. “I was motivated to join Mock Trial because I have an interest in the U.S. legal system and I also have an interest in pursuing a career in law,” she says. Natalie sees how other parts of her Mayfield curriculum are enriching and deepening her experience here. “I'm currently in AP Government and it has been really neat to be able to find similarities between what we are studying in that class and what we discuss in Mock Trial.”

The mission statement of the Constitutional Rights Foundation says that it hopes its initiatives “inspire lifelong civic engagement through interactive programs and resources for teachers and youth because our democracy depends on informed participation by all.”

And it seems like that mission has taken root inside Mayfield’s Mock Trial team. “We have had a lot of class conversations surrounding the law and constitutional concerns,” Emily says. Win or lose in this upcoming competition, the overall experience is “meaningful because it makes us better citizens.”
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 28 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.