The ceremonial courtroom of the Eastern District Courthouse in Brooklyn, New York, is silent, waiting for a response from Frankie Fernandez, the witness on the stand. He’s a character–a serious scuba diver, a risk taker, and an outdoor enthusiast with a big personality to match. He’s being faced down by cross-examining defense attorney Madison Shepard of Trinity Pacific Christian School.
“You followed instructions, and you survived?” she asks, glancing at the jury.
Plaintiff’s attorney, Kathleen Koehnke of ETHOS Academy, objects. “Relevance, Your Honor? It’s obvious he survived; he’s sitting right there.” After listening to both attorneys, the Honorable Margo K. Brodie, United States District Court Judge, overrules the objection; the witness is allowed to answer.
“Well, yeah–here I am. I’m alive!” Mr. Fernandez says, giving his trademark dreadlocks a toss.
It’s an opportunity few high school students will ever experience. Portraying witnesses and trial attorneys in front of a jury, a judge, cameras. Performing on an international stage. This scene played out during the championship round of the Empire Mock Trial World Championship event in New York last weekend, October 23-27. Hundreds of students competed, all vying for the most coveted title in this intense academic event: world champion. Students gathered from all over the world–South Korea, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, and the United States–to try the case of Andy Allen v. Neptune Underwater Expeditions.
This year, more than any other, was a landmark year for homeschool mock trial teams at the Empire event. Four teams comprised of homeschoolers participated, three of those teams placed in the top ten, two competed in the championship round, and one was declared the world champion. “This is part of growing interest and enthusiasm for mock trial in the homeschooling community. It’s a very exciting day for homeschooled students,” said Sarah Winkle, coach of Trinity Pacific, the winning team. Mock trial is invaluable for any student, but it is uniquely suited for homeschoolers. Sue Johnson, executive vice president of Empire Mock Trial, said that homeschooled students have always been welcome at the Empire event, adding, “We are pleased that so many homeschooled teams are reaping the benefits of mock trial participation in their state programs and look forward to continued participation by homeschooled teams at Empire events in the coming years.”
In addition to the excellent placement of the homeschool teams in this year’s event, individual students were also honored for their achievements. The night before the championship trial, hundreds of high schoolers from around the world cheered as the top individual performances in witness and attorney categories were awarded. Four of those honorees were homeschooled students.
Until recently, homeschool participation in mock trial was relatively rare. Increasingly, parents, students, and coaches are seeing the extraordinary value of mock trial for high school students. Justin Bernstein, the president of the American Mock Trial Association, described the advantages: “There is no better activity for high school students than mock trial. Mock trial improves public speaking, critical thinking, leadership, improvisational skills, and confidence. Regardless of a student’s career goal–lawyer, doctor, scientist, entrepreneur, teacher–mock trial will help her or him get there.”
Once the closing arguments in the championship trial ended and students breathlessly awaited results in the courtroom, the attorney scorers acting as a jury began to give comments, remarking on the students’ poise, knowledge, and creativity. One scorer pointed at Frankie Fernandez, saying, “I have to ask…the dreadlocks–are they real?” The student, Cooper Millhouse, pulled off the dark wig to reveal short blonde hair underneath and the courtroom laughed.
After Trinity Pacific Christian School, a 30-year-old homeschool organization from California, was announced as the 2014 champion, the students from both teams cheered and hugged each other, shaking hands and exchanging congratulations. The competition was intense and even through the elation and disappointment evident in the courtroom, both teams could agree on one thing–this round was a win for homeschooling, and for mock trial.
Congratulations to the homeschool teams who competed at the Empire World Championship:
- World champion: Trinity Pacific Christian School (CA)
- Runner-up: ETHOS Academy (VA)
- 6th place: Central Carolina Homeschoolers (NC)
- 19th place: CSTHEA (TN)
And to the homeschooled students recognized individually:
- Rachel Cline of Central Carolina Homeschoolers (outstanding attorney)
- Jeremy Judd of Trinity Pacific Christian School (outstanding witness)
- Carolyn Koehnke of ETHOS (outstanding attorney)
- Cooper Millhouse of ETHOS (outstanding witness)
- Elizabeth Willingham of Trinity Pacific Christian School (outstanding witness)
For more information on how to get involved in mock trial, contact the National Homeschool Mock Trial Association here.