Central students face justice

Inaugural mock trial camp helps teens work toward order in the court

A courtroom can be a daunting place as parties navigate strict rules and rulings in the pursuit of justice.

This week more than two dozen teens gained insight into the country's legal process as well as litigation tactics at Hinsdale Central High School's first mock trial camp Aug. 7-9.

Led by Central history teacher Chris Freiler, who has coached the school's mock trial team for the last 25 years, the three-day, 12-hour course instructed campers on the proper way to enter exhibits, question witnesses and raise objections among other skills, all aimed at effectively presenting a case to a jury.

"We're just introducing them to the elements of a trial, standards of evidence, and then more practical things," he said. "Even handling paperwork can ruffle you if you don't know where to stand and what you need and how to ask the questions to get evidence submitted."

The camp was held in the school library, with the first two days consisting of teaching followed by preparation time for Wednesday's trial. Campers were split into legal teams and assigned a role for the civil case, in which negligence was alleged to have led to the plaintiff's injury. The trial was staged in triplicate due to the number of participants.

Among Tuesday's lessons was the meaning and problematic nature of hearsay testimony from a witness.

"Evidence should be relevant, reliable and not unduly prejudicial," Freiler explained to the students. "The problem with hearsay is that it's not reliable. The person whose words you're repeating, they're not under oath."

An opposing counsel could lodge an objection claiming hearsay. Other grounds for objections include "asked and answered" to prevent a witness from having to respond repeatedly to the same question, and "legal conclusion" if a witness volunteers his or her verdict while on the stand.

"The person who's testifying can't determine the outcome of the case," Freiler said. "The jury's the

one that will decide this."

Veteran Central mock trial team members like senior Vivian Sweeney were enlisted to help the campers get ready for trial, guiding them in shaping opening statements, direct and cross-examination and closing statements.

"It's nice to have a lot of people interested and get them excited before the year starts," Sweeney said of the inaugural camp.

Junior Tommy Costello said the experience has been enlightening.

"It's been a lot of note-taking," he said. "It's been a lot of fun to be able to stick my feet in and get the general sense of it."

Another group huddled in a library conference room going over strategy. Incoming freshman Aishani Gupta said her interest in law drew her to sign up for the camp.

"I've always wanted to do mock trial, and I figured that doing the camp would improve my chances for making the team," Gupta said, adding that she planned on getting a pre-trial consult from her uncle, an attorney.

Across the library, another team watched their mock trial team coaches demonstrate a methodical approach to witness questioning. Junior Ayla Mushtaq said such modeling is a valuable resource.

"It's definitely a good experience to learn from the current members of the mock trial team and learn what it's like to be part of the team," Mushtaq said.

Freiler said he chose a old state tournament case for the camp and that he wanted it to culminate in a trial so campers understand the dynamic.

"We wanted to do the same type of case that we're likely to have this year at state," he remarked.

Incoming freshman Alexander Ghannam said he was expanding his knowledge base.

"To prepare for the future, if you want to be a lawyer or anything like that, it gives a good feel for a trial in court," he said.

Coach Sara Izhar, a junior mock trial team member, proposed launching the mock trial camp to Freiler after last year's season.

"We were really close to finishing first at state, so we want to be more prepared for nationals and get more people interested in knowing more about mock trial," Izhar said of her rationale.

Freiler said at the very least he hopes campers gain an appreciation of the crucial role of the court system.

"The courtroom becomes the place to reveal what are the problems, the conflicts, the disputes that we can't resolve," he said. "It's like a crucible to figure out what's important to us and how to maintain some standard of justice."

Other goals are to demystify the language and maneuvers of the courtroom and to compel teens to elevate their critical thinking and public speaking acumen. It also doesn't hurt to scout mock trial team prospects.

"I think it's a forum for kids to test their potential and their limits and to gain some confidence," Freiler said. "This is something that requires a high degree of engagement, so it's likely to do things within you that you didn't even anticipate or expect."