Indio High School mock tryout team heads to Harvard to prepare for season

They look like shy teenagers, but in the courtroom they shine.

At first, the Indio High School mock trial team is unsure of being interviewed. They go around in a circle, timidly presenting their names, their grades and their positions on the team. Most speak softly, but one attribute stands out: nearly the entire team has won awards for their courtroom performances.

Over time, their vibrant personalities fill the room. It turns out they’re fiercely competitive and determined to be the best mock trial team in the Coachella Valley and, possibly, Riverside County, where there are over 20 teams.

In short, they have a swagger.

“The best part of a mock trial is winning and scrubbing it,” said Wyatt Stucki, lead prosecutor and reigning team MVP bailiff.

And this weekend, the team takes one of its first steps toward its goal: they’re going to Harvard to get in fighting shape.

Coach Joel Mark, as a judge, smiles as lead defense attorney Victoria Sung cross-examines victim Lucas Maduena during a show trial last week at Indio High School.

Last spring, Indio High was one of the top eight clubs in the county despite the roughly 25-member squad being full of freshmen and other rookies.

This year, they return an exceptional sophomore class and a cadre of award-winning seniors eager to cement their legacy as one of the best mock trial teams in school history.

“We thrive on intense competition,” said Victoria Sung, defense attorney and reigning team MVP as pretrial counsel.

“Steel sharpens steel,” Stucki added.

Mock trial is a competition in which students simulate a trial against another club. This season, schools in Southern California will take the fictional People v. Franks, which involves thorny Fourth Amendment issues, an alleged robbery at sea, and jealousy between two rival actors for the same Broadway role.

The students estimated that they spent around 10 hours a week practicing.

“I don’t think people know how difficult it is,” second Angela Abrio said.

“We don’t get enough credit for work,” sophomore Jacqueline Zamora added, comparing the status of the mock trial on campus to other organized activities like sports.

But like athletes, they love the thrill of competition.

“It’s all about the adrenaline rush,” Sung said.

Lead defense attorney Victoria Sung listens to the proceedings during practice for a mock trial last week at Indio High School.

Their job is to memorize the ins and outs of the case and rehearse assigned characters, including witnesses and experts.

Students are given their roles in the trial based on a fall audition process. As a rule, upper-class men become lawyers.

The mock trial is not just about the law. There is also a huge element of drama.

Student witnesses cannot improvise their testimony during trials, but they still have leeway in their delivery, making it harder for the opposing team to grill them during cross-examination.

Sophomore Jessica Ramirez is considered one of the best actresses in Team Indio. In this year’s case, Ramirez plays Jade Marquez, a 63-year-old jeweler and expert witness.

Ramirez said his skills lie as much in memorizing the facts of his testimony as in “becoming the character.”

“I’m very proud of my presence on the stand,” she said, adding that she practices details like her posture and her enunciation. “I need to know how I want to act.”

Compared to witnesses, student lawyers spend a good portion of the preseason practicing legal strategy, preparing lines of questioning, memorizing legal precedents, and drafting opening and closing arguments.

Club Indio is advised by several practicing lawyers, a law student and a law school candidate.

Competitions are judged by practicing lawyers and judges.

Defense attorney and coach Gypsy Yeager reviews evidence to help the team prepare during practice for the mock trial last week at Indio High School.

The club goes to Harvard

While the People v. Franks kicks off this spring, 10 teammates and several advisers are attending a mock trial seminar at Harvard University this weekend. The trip is sponsored by the Walter Clark Legal Group.

The Harvard Seminar is a rigorous event that brings together many of the best mock trial clubs in the country.

Members of the Indio High squad casually called it a preseason tune-up, but they also expressed apprehension about fitting in with other students – many of whom represent elite private and preparatory schools.

Indio High mock trial alumni went on to earn degrees from Harvard, Stanford and other top universities, but some teammates never had the privilege of traveling to the East Coast.

Although their club may not have the resources of some private schools, it thrives on an exceptional degree of community support from volunteer lawyers and philanthropists.

“It takes a whole village,” said Martha Sung, a French teacher and senior adviser.

Mock trial counselor Martha Sung presents photos of evidence to her team during last week's practice at Indio High School.

Indio High even has a mock courtroom on campus, an extremely unusual feature for any public school.

Surprisingly enough, not all teammates want to be lawyers.

Victoria Sung, the lead attorney and the counselor’s daughter, said the skills she learned in a mock trial will help her in everything.

These include public speaking, confidence, analytical thinking and improvisation, she explained.

Destiny Casas, senior, said the mock trial taught him to remain impartial.

“In the courtroom, it doesn’t matter what you believe,” she explained. “It doesn’t matter what your character believes.”

Stucki added that it is simply gratifying to learn about his constitutional rights.

“Understanding the Fourth Amendment opens your eyes to a lot of things, like how the police can act,” he said.

And, while Stucki doubled down on the fact that the mock trial is about winning, Martha Sung, as an adviser, had a different perspective on the value of participation.

“I want my students to be confident and ready for the world,” she said.

Jonathan Horwitz covers education for The Desert Sun. Contact him at jonathan.horwitz@desertsun.com or @Writes_Jonathan.

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