By Brad Hicks
Hadley Gruber, a straight-A student with aspirations of one day attending medical school, stood accused.
The 17-year-old Gruber was charged with the crimes of aggravated assault and elder abuse. These charges stemmed from an incident that allegedly occurred while Gruber volunteered in the medical program at the Mapleleaf Manor nursing home.
It would be up to a jury to determine whether the young Gruber would be tried as an adult or his case would remain in the jurisdiction of a juvenile court.
While this case is fictional, the preparation and practice turned in by the Unicoi County High School Mock Trial team was very real.
The team took everything it had gleaned from hours of study, rehearsals and other competitions to Nashville this past Saturday to compete in the Tennessee High School Mock Trial state competition. And, although the team placed outside of the top ten, its coaches could not be more proud of the students who took part.
“We had a great time,” said Lois Shults-Davis, who served as one of the coaches for the UCHS Mock Trial team. “It was fun, fun, fun.”
A trip to the state capital is nothing new for the UCHS Mock Trial team. This was the team’s fourth consecutive year making it to the state competition. Two of the three prior years, the team placed seventh in the state.
To earn a spot in the state competition, a mock trial team must win at the district level. The team from UCHS did just that by winning the day-long regional competition held at the George Jaynes Justice Center in Jonesborough on Feb. 25.
In what some may consider a surprise, it was the UCHS Mock Trial junior varsity team that bested the local varsity team in the district-level competition.
“Our junior varsity this year was phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal,” Shults-Davis said.
But Shults-Davis quickly added the varsity team had its share of mock trial stars. In fact, the UCHS junior varsity and varsity mock trial teams finished first and second, respectively, at the regional competition held in late February. The difference between first and second place, Shults-Davis said, came down to a single performance point.
“The varsity did not lose a ballot to any other school,” she said. “The only ballots they lost in the regional were to the junior varsity.”
When tryouts for the UCHS Mock Trial team were held last year, there was such a high number of students interested in participating that it allowed for the formation of both a varsity team and junior varsity team.
At the district competition, students on both of the UCHS teams received special recognition in the awards ceremony. First-place attorney was awarded to Steven Szucs, second-place attorney to Rachel Lynch, first-place witness to Daniel Bess, third-place witness to Chase Erwin, most valuable player for varsity to Lynch, and most valuable player for junior varsity was awarded to Brandolyn Thomas.
Additional members of the junior varsity team were Emily Casey, Joseph Greene, Ethan Kistler, Lucas Swinehart and Adam Tilley, who acted as attorney. Other witnesses on the junior varsity team were Emma Ledford, Dakota Ollis and Megan Todd.
Additional student attorneys on the varsity team were Alex Carter, Brenna Jones, Leanna Hager, Matthew Szucs and Elizabeth Sutphin. Varsity witnesses included Jones, Olivia Brackens, Christian Leon and Kaitlyn Rogers.
Because the junior varsity team prevailed at the district level, it was that squad that went to Nashville this past weekend. Shults-Davis said 15 students, made of the junior varsity team and several alternates, traveled to the capital for the state competition.
The Tennessee High School Mock Trial state competition is put on by the Tennessee Bar Association. In late November, the TBA submits to mock trial teams across the state the “problem,” or the basics of the case, which they will be arguing. It is then up to the mock trial team members to develop their own theories on the case, with some guidance from team coaches. Students portraying attorneys write their own questions, as well as opening and closing arguments, while students playing witnesses prepare their own responses.
Preparation for the upcoming competitions began in December, with students working to prepare these arguments, their roles, cross-examinations and other aspects of the case.
“Of course, they can coordinate,” Shults-Davis said. “They can work together on that. And, then, they get to the place that they can actually do a trial.”
The team has also turned in a lot of practice time since then.
“I’m proud that our teams over the years have started practicing earlier and earlier, and they really get into this,” Shults-Davis said.
Shults-Davis said coaches for the UCHS teams feel it is important to leave this work to the students rather than scripting the case for them.
“We figure that the real benefit of this to our youth is that they have the opportunity to develop creative thinking, that they can develop the ability to learn and that they can do anything they choose to,” Shults-Davis said.
In Nashville, UCHS students were given a tour of the state capitol building. The team also had the opportunity to practice a portion of their case on the floor of the state congress, as well as perform a mock debate of a bill going through the legislature.
Shults-Davis said the local team managed to win a couple of rounds. In its final round, the UCHS squad was bested by the team that would go on to finish third in the state competition, Shults-Davis said.
Still, Shults-Davis said the students enjoyed the trip and performed well. She said the coaches are “as proud of them as we can be.”
“For me, the reality is if our kids don’t understand how our government works, what happens in the legal system, then they’re not very well prepared to be voters and citizens,” Shults-Davis said.
“This gives them the opportunity to see how it really works and it also helps them, gives them the opportunity to develop themselves. And that’s what we’re most proud of. Some of the things we see with these kids, it is just phenomenal what they do,” Shults-Davis continued.
Along with Shults-Davis, other coaches for the UCHS Mock Trial team were Debbie Lonon, Sarah Shults and UCHS staff members Thad Higgins and Chad Roller.