An unusual trial starts today under the golden dome of the Westmoreland County courthouse in Greensburg: The lawyers in the case will be teenagers.
It's the start of the annual Westmoreland County Mock Trial Competition, and seven area high school teams will be arguing a criminal case over the next month before a jury of real attorneys.
Students from Greensburg-Salem, Derry Area, Valley, Kiski Area, Franklin Regional, Penn-Trafford and Southmoreland will match their skills in weekly trials.
Each mock trial team in the state gets the facts of the same fictitious case. And each team during the competition must argue both sides of the case with three lawyers and three witnesses.
Gabrielle Ahrens, 21, a biochemistry major at Grove City College, was on the Greensburg-Salem mock trial team for three years while in high school. She said it was a great experience.
"It was a lot of hard work, but it was definitely worth it," she said. "It improved my work ethic -- it teaches you to work hard for a goal, and that prepared me for college. We would practice seven days a week at times. It improved my public speaking skills, too. I'm not afraid to talk in front of anyone now."
She was a witness for the team one year and an attorney for two.
Each high school team has an attorney coach and a teacher coach.
Westmoreland County Common Pleas Judge Richard McCormick Jr. has been a staunch advocate for the program since it began in the county more than 25 years ago.
He was the attorney coach for the Greensburg-Salem team when it won the statewide mock trial championship four times; 2001, 2005, 2006 and 2007.
"My wife, who was a teacher at Greensburg-Salem, and I first started coaching the team together, right after the program began in the county," he said. "Then, when our children were young, we took a break. But my son, Richard, always remembered when the kids came to our house to practice for mock trial. And when he was in 10th grade, he asked me to come back as coach when he was part of the team."
Richard is now an attorney in Vermont.
"We're not trying to make lawyers," said the judge, "but to teach life skills. I had one woman who was on the team who became a doctor and she told me the experience gave her confidence during her medical rounds.
"It teaches you how to think on your feet, and speaking and reasoning skills," he said.
He said one of the most fulfilling experiences is seeing a student blossom during the practices and competition.
"I remember one student on our team who won at states, he became a legend in mock trial history," Mr. McCormick recalled . "He was not one of the kids who had the natural speaking skills, but he loved the idea of mock trial. He even had been verbally teased by some of the other kids. I always encouraged those who were witnesses [for the trial] to create a memorable character on the stand. And this boy created a Buddhist, a sensei [master] kind of character, and he was memorable. [Pennsylvania Cable News] broadcasts the statewide competition and then sells the tapes for other teams to watch, so he became known all over the state.
"That experience gave him confidence, and his teammates realized he had won the competition for them," Mr. McCormick said.
Assistant district attorney Leo Ciaramitaro has been chairman of the bar association mock trial program for more than 10 years.
"I really enjoy it, and it's nice to see the kids develop," he said. "It's a wonderfully valuable experience that they will use the rest of their lives -- learning to speak in public and to think on their feet. I've seen surveys that people fear speaking in public more than they fear death. But it's an important skill you often need in life, how to persuade people."
"Students learn to present facts in a logical way, and those skills translate into skills that will benefit them in life, whether they become an attorney or go into business," he said.
"They really work hard, too," he said. "This year, it will be a criminal case that all the mock teams in the state will be arguing. It will be a negligent homicide case. A crane fell at a construction site, crushing a person, and there is a question whether the crane was deliberately damaged by a suspect."
He said the fictitious case mirrors a real case in Milwaukee when a crane collapsed in 1999 during construction of the baseball stadium.
Anywhere from five to 14 county attorneys will sit as jurors, Mr. Ciaramitaro said, and will score the high school teams.
Students have to learn all the rules and procedures allowed in court, and present opening statements, direct examination, cross-examination of witnesses and objections to admitting evidence into the court.
Students can also win scholarships for college. The Westmoreland Bar Foundation presents a $1,000 scholarship to a student on the winning team and one to a senior on another team, based on financial need.
The winning team also gets display rights at their high school for a 3-foot trophy.
Mr. McCormick said coaching the mock trial team has been a nice way to volunteer his services to the community.
"It's nice to pass along a skill that you have," he said, "and help the next generation. And it's nice to continue an academic competition in the schools. Competition seems to bring out the best in the kids."
He said he and his longtime teacher coach of the Greensburg-Salem team, Judy Washburn, have already recruited their coaching replacements, and all four help with the high school's two mock trial teams.
The Greensburg-Salem team has already participated in a University of Pittsburgh mock trial competition, and during the county competition, Mr. McCormick says, they will get together to practice at least three times a week.
The mock trial competitions are open to the public and take place at 5 p.m. today, and again Feb. 6, 12, 19 and 21. The final competition will be held at noon Feb. 25, before a county judge.
Mock trial is sponsored by the Pennsylvania Bar Association and the Westmoreland Bar Foundation locally, with financial support from the Westmoreland Academy of Trial Lawyers.
Debra Duncan, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.