High school Mock Trial contest revisits aftermath of painful racist murder case
The case presented to high school students in Saturday's Annual Oregon High School Mock Trial Regional Competition was ripped straight from the headlines.
Saturday's docket includes a case patterned after the Mulugeta Seraw murder, a shocking incident almost two decades ago when racist skinheads beat the Ethiopian immigrant to death in downtown Portland.
After the case's criminal trial came a groundbreaking civil lawsuit in which civil rights attorneys went after assets to bankrupt an entire racist organization that had connections with the man's assailants.
The high school annual event is a chance for young 'lawyers' to pit their know-how against fellow students in a battle that demands critical thinking, poise and a mastery of public speaking skills.
Gearing up for the annual event held at the Washington County Courthouse are students from the School of Science and Technology at Merlo Station, Jesuit, Oregon Episcopal, Sunset, Westview, Forest Grove and Scappoose high schools.
Many students have prepped for the event since the fall. For some of the pseudo-attorneys, it's a final chance to show their stuff in a courtroom setting.
'It's our last year and we're ready to win,' said Laila Wahedi, a School of Science and Technology senior who has participated in the event since she was a freshman.
Wahedi, who is one of two team captains, says the event seems to get easier with each passing year. She is especially looking forward to testing out her cross-examination skills.
'It's great when you get them to admit to something,' said Wahedi.
Like many of the other students, Wahedi said she's intrigued by the case that's modeled in part (Mock Trials aren't supposed to contain actual information from real-life cases) after the Seraw v. Metzger case.
In November 1988, Ethiopian Mulugeta Seraw was killed by skinheads linked to East Side White Pride, a racist organization.
After convictions in the criminal case, famed Montgomery, Ala., civil rights attorney Morris Dees successfully went after the assets of Tom Metzger, leader of the White Aryan Resistance, who the skinheads had connection with.
'It's patterned after that. It's the civil trial,' said Camille Tourje, regional coordinator for the Mock Trial. 'That's generally a little harder for the students to do.'
Doing full suits
In Saturday's event, the 'defendants' are T. Brewster and Michael Miller, who are being sued for the wrongful death of Leon Johnson, brutally murdered because he's an African American.
Tourje said students will be notified only a few minutes before the trial begins whether they will be arguing for the defense or the plaintiff.
Also, during the course of the competition, students will take on the roles of witnesses.
Eric Passes, Mock Trial adviser for the School of Science and Technology, believes his students are up to the challenge.
'The students are very confident and excited about the competition,' said Passes. 'These are students that enjoy competition.'
Tejeswara Reddy, a junior at Science and Technology and the other team captain, said much of this weekend's case will come down to 'how we lead our witnesses.'
Reddy and the young lawyers on his team may have a little edge in the fact that they are part of the Beaverton Youth Peer Court program, where they represent young offenders on misdemeanor offenses that make their way through Beaverton Municipal Court.
'There's quite a tradition of Mock Trial at this school,' said Reddy. 'You have really passionate students.'
Reddy said what makes the case interesting is that it involves issues of murder, hate crimes and race issues. What he has found during his three years of Mock Trials are the nuances of what real lawyers have to deal with.
'It's one of the important things of being a lawyer, you have to read your judge,' said Reddy.
Edgar Mendez, a SST team co-captain, said while everyone has basically the same facts involving the case it's a matter of how attorneys approach their cases that makes the difference.
'How questions are asked, how witnesses respond and how things are presented, makes all the difference,' said Mendez.
Another Science and Technology student, Lila Neiswanger, said that the attorneys have to review all the possible objections that could come up.
Neiswanger said students dress the part as well.
'We do full suits,' said Neiswanger. 'We like looking good.'
Across town at Oregon Episcopal School, captains Annie Drinkward and Rémy Olson, both seniors, spent Sunday evening in the Washington County Courthouse as part of a dress rehearsal.
On Monday, at least 18 members of the Mock Trial team went through their paces.
'Of the cases I've seen in the past … I really like this one the best,' said Drinkward.
Like the Science and Technology students, Drinkward said the mix of issues related to racism, the First Amendment and other hot button issues make for a compelling case, more so than past cases that involved a drag racing fatality and a student who hurt his hand on a science experiment.
As Drinkward pointed out: 'These people are racists; They're really bad people.'
Olson said he doesn't expect to be as nervous as he was during his first year of competition as a freshman.
'I stood up to give my questions and I was petrified,' Olson said when he first entered an ornate Multnomah County courtroom.
He's very confident in his team's chances this year.
'I think we really have a good team,' he said.
The students have been practicing hard since the fall, working on a variety of case theories and teaching new students how to ask questions.
After Christmas break, the students began practicing for about six hours a day.
'For the past two weeks it's about eight (hours),' Drinkward added.
Now they're coming into the homestretch.
'At this point, it's mostly last-minute tweaks, getting this memorized and practicing courtroom demeanor,' said Olson.
Oregon Episcopal School Mock Trial adviser John Holloran said he views Saturday's competition in broad terms, rather than a single event.
'I see this primarily as an educational activity,' said Holloran. 'It's one of the great educational experiences.'