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Despite lack of state support, mock trial club soldiers on

DEFENSE ATTORNEY NICOLE DWYER (standing, right) questions a witness during the Prospect Mountain High School mock trial club’s pre-tournament skirmish against a team from Exeter on April 19. Brendan Berube. (click for larger version)
April 28, 2009
ALTON — The audience watched in silence as attorney Allison Cormier hammered away at the smug 17-year-old on the witness stand, trying to demonstrate through her rapid-fire cross-examination that he, and not her client, was responsible for the burns suffered by a friend during a barn fire.

Although the scene could have taken place in any local courtroom, the setting was, in fact, the Prospect Mountain High School media center, where the school's mock trial club met on April 19 for a pre-tournament scrimmage against a team from Exeter.

According to coach Laura Dwyer, the scrimmage was her team's first in its home state since the New Hampshire Bar Association suddenly discontinued its longstanding support for the mock trial program several months ago, citing a lack of both volunteers and appropriate funding.

"This has been a great disappointment and loss for the state of New Hampshire," she said, adding that she hoped the story of the team's efforts to soldier on without access to state resources would convince the Bar Association to take a second look at the program.

"We're hoping that if we keep plugging away … we can apply some pressure," she added, explaining that a number of schools across the state have tried to continue their mock trial programs independently, but have had problems securing enough funding to sustain themselves.

The Prospect Mountain team, she said, has been working since September on the case of Jamie Franklin v. Pat Cartwright, a fictional lawsuit alleging that Cartwright was responsible for the debilitating burns Franklin suffered during a massive fire at a barn on Cartwright's property.

With the Exeter team (which Dwyer said has been on its own since losing its legal advisor) representing Franklin during the skirmish, Prospect Mountain handled the defense, arguing that the fire resulted from an illegal bar and gambling casino set up by a 17-year-old who rented the barn from Cartwright under the pretense of using it to store lawn mowing equipment.

Describing her team as a "distinctly unique group of dedicated students," Dwyer said three of its members (including Cormier and her own daughter Nicole, who served as co-counsel for the defense during the skirmish) have settled on careers as attorneys as a result of their involvement in the mock trial program.

With Sally O'Brien, an experienced attorney and adjunct professor at the Franklin Pierce Law Center, continuing to serve as its legal advisor even after the Bar Association's decision to cut off support for the program, Dwyer said the Prospect Mountain team has been traveling to Massachusetts at its own expense to train for competition with the Harvard University Mock Trial Association.

For the Prospect Mountain team, the April 19 skirmish (over which O'Brien presided as judge, offering both sides advice on how to handle witnesses during testimony and cross-examination, and how to file appropriate objections) served as a dry run for an upcoming competition with teams from schools as far away as Keene at the Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord on May 13.

Next year, Dwyer added, the team is slated to compete in the Yale University Mock Trial Tournament for a shot at a national-level competition.

Expressing her thanks for having a team "that's so perseverant," Dwyer said the mock trial program offers students an opportunity to apply what they learn in high school civics classes to real-life situations, and enables them to make connections within the legal profession that might pay off down the road.

"How do you beat that?" she mused. "Those are real-life connections that you can't make in a classroom."

Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or bberube@salmonpress.com

Martin Lord and Osman
Salmon Press
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