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VOL. 122 | NO. 53 | Thursday, March 22, 2007

You Go Girls: Mock Trial Team Members Get Their Game On

By Amy O. Williams

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SUGAR 'N' SPICE: Westminster Academy's high school mock trial team members are the 2007 champions of their district. Shown from left are Erin Wukasch, 16; Amy Smith, 16; Autumn Baldock, 17; Ashley Shaunak, 18; Elizabeth Fox, 17; Keith Hall, 17; and Amanda Hall, 16. The girls are in the costumes they wear during mock trial competitions. -- Photo By Amy O. Williams

High school student Keith Hall admits that during this time of year, she thinks about mock trial competition all the time. She thinks about it in her math class when she should be focusing on calculus. It even keeps her awake at night.

And the 17-year-old is not alone. The six other students on the all-girl 2007 mock trial team at Westminster Academy on Ridgeway Road just off Bill Morris Parkway feel exactly the same.

"When mock trial is going on, it is all you think about," Keith said.

Child's play? Not really

The girls' enthusiasm for the competition is impossible to miss. They excitedly chatter about cross-examinations and impeaching witnesses.

Maybe it's that drive and passion for mock trial that helped the girls win the 2007 Memphis and Shelby County Mock Trial Competition.

On their way to that victory, the Westminster Academy team pushed their way past opponents from much larger schools, such as White Station High School, Memphis University School and Briarcrest Christian School. Westminster's graduating class in 2006 had 17 students.

Westminster's team defeated St. Mary's Episcopal School Feb. 27 during the championship round of the district competition, which was held at the Shelby County Courthouse.

The regional championship earned the team a trip to Nashville for the 2007 State Mock Trial Tournament. Since the St. Mary's students also made it into the championship round, they also will attend the state tournament.

The seven girls on Westminster Academy's high school mock trial team range in age from 16 to 18 and are sophomores, juniors and seniors. The members of the 2007 team are Amanda Hall, 16; Keith Hall, 17; Elizabeth Fox, 17; Ashley Shaunak, 18; Autumn Baldock, 17; Amy Smith, 16; and Erin Wukasch, 16.

'Just that good'

As they begin discussing their latest "case," it's easy to forget the girls are still in high school.

They talk about keeping control of their witnesses, the exhilaration of impeaching a witness and how they try to get into the heads of the lawyers on other teams. Hall plays a doctor who is an expert witness for the prosecution in the case, and loves her role on the team.

"It is exhilarating to be cross (examined)," she said. "Especially when you don't let them get you off track."

For this year's mock trial competition, the teams were given a fictitious murder case. Each team acts as either prosecution or defense in each competition. Most of the participating schools have a prosecution and defense team. But because Westminster is smaller than the other schools they've competed against, this tight-knit group just switches roles each time.

They had three lawyers and three witnesses for each competition, with the extra person acting as timekeeper.

Attorney Steve Leffler coached the girls and said the team is made up of seven very sharp students.

"This is the best crew I have ever had," said Leffler, who has been coaching mock trial teams for about 10 years. "I haven't done anything different than I have ever done - they are just that good. It's been a joy working with them."

Seasoned veterans

Leffler is a trial lawyer who has a solo practice on Adams Avenue in Memphis, the Law Office of Steven R. Leffler PC. He met with the team on Sundays for two months beginning in late December.

He said this group stands out because they work so well together.

"Every witness is as good as every other witness; every lawyer is as good as every other lawyer," he said. "There are no weak links in the chain. It's a very balanced attack and what that goes into it is a team effort, and they certainly have behaved like a team."

One of the important lessons Leffler stressed to the girls was to have class during the competitions no matter what happened.

"When they walk away from there, they have to know that they properly represented their school," he said.

Westminster Academy was started about 10 years ago and has more than 330 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Its curriculum includes courses in rhetoric and logic, which Leffler said he believes contributes to the team's success in the mock trial competitions.

"I knew right when I started doing it that it would dovetail quite well with this competition, and I think it has," he said.

But nothing takes the place of experience, he said, and the 2007 team has experience. Some of the girls, such as senior Ashley Shaunak, have participated in mock trial for several years.

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