Central Oregon’s Annual High School Mock Trial Competition Returns

After a pandemic-related hiatus, the regional tournament scheduled to occur in February

All rise! Months of preparation and late-night document scanning have brought several teams of high school students to, the Deschutes County Circuit Court. It’s dead quiet in front of the jury, and nerve-racking. This momentary stillness is interrupted with the slam of a gavel, and so the regional high school mock trial competition begins.  

Oregon’s annual mock trial competition began in 1987 with the goal of getting students to think about their future sooner. So how does the competition work? Each school in the district—Summit, Bend High, Caldera and Cascades Academy—has a team consisting of two key categories: witnesses and attorneys. Students really become their respective roles, whether that means fake-crying on the witness stand or simply dressing the part. 

Every year, all participating schools receive hypothetical court cases that teams will focus on for that competition’s season. The case generally includes affidavits, evidence and rules for what objections lawyers can use, but not who’s guilty. That’s for the jury to decide, based on performance and each team’s case theory. 

As a witness, students read their assigned affidavit (basically a witness’ monologue) and work with a mock lawyer for what to do while being questioned by either team. For those who prefer the more argumentative lifestyle, acting as a lawyer is another possibility. Students craft their arguments and what they want the jury to hear using evidence to back up claims. In addition, students can plan to try and trip up a witness from the opposing team on cross-examination. Sophomore Lio Ditta gives the witness’ perspective. 

“It’s all about being [abrasive]. People [get disorganized] if you start talking and don’t [stop],” said Ditta.

Cases vary in content every year and alternate between civil and criminal trials, thereby giving participating students full exposure to the law world. 

“Basically in criminal cases, somebody gets arrested and in civil cases, somebody gets sued,” said Lith Canady, another mock trial student.

“This year, the case is about a plane crash,” said sophomore Lin Mills. The story is about a criminal trial in which the prosecution was accused of lying to investigators after causing a plane crash. Seems simple but a few twists can be used to each team’s advantage, especially as, in this case, one person with strong evidence died and is unable to testify. In this way, you can think of the mock trial competition as a puzzle, and finding workarounds can take weeks.

On Feb. 24, after months of preparation, teams will take to the courtroom. Each side gives an opening statement, then the prosecution calls up their first witness and everything from there continues as would a genuine court proceeding. 

Former lawyers often work as coaches for the students, teaching them the proper law practices and assisting them in crafting strong arguments. At his first law firm, Bend High coach Peter Richter says he had to deal with 2-3 lawsuits per day. Now retired with over 40 years of experience, he’s working as a coach and has a few tips to share. 

“A lot of times, people struggle to find the difference between a fact, opinion, characterization or a conclusion,” says Richter. Knowing that it’s important to clarify to the jury when they’re being presented with facts, and when a team is hearing something that has been twisted to fit a perspective is vital to presenting a strong argument. Richter also noted how often he has seen lawyers skip over this crucial part and ultimately lose cases. 

For anyone wanting to tread down the path of law, competing in mock trial gives them a nice head start. The basic and not-so-serious taste of the courtroom gets students comfortable in an environment in which they may one day thrive. Plus, they learn the importance of a neatly pressed suit—truly invaluable.