It was after-hours in the El Paso County court house — inmates had been shuttled back to jail, judges locked up their quarters — but Judge Larry Martin’s courtroom was an explosion of jubilant teenagers and cake crumbs.
On Valentine’s night, the Coronado High School Mock Trial team was fresh from a victory at its regional competition, and in no mood for proper court behavior. The kids filled the jury seats, sat in the judge’s chair, squeezed into the witness box, and generally had fun in the pristine room that seldom sees such joy or messiness. Although team members, who spend several months each year training to act out a complex courtroom drama, are high school students, there is nothing mocking about their knowledge of the law.
And while their coach, El Paso County Public Defender Michele Newell, tried to round them up, she reminded the triumphant team that they are better than the real deal.
“You know the rules of evidence better than 90 percent of the attorneys in the office,” she said, as she leaned on the witness box.
“And (better than) 99 percent of the judges,” added Judge Larry Martin, who has helped the team for nine years.
From Nov. 1 until the state competition in early March, the team and its six public defender coaches spend three evenings a week in Martin’s South Tower court room — the attorneys and judge often come from trial and the kids from a long day at school, Together, they work on a problem, or a court case, given them by the Colorado Bar Association. This year, they are defending accused murderer Kriss Everdone, who (so the story goes) beat his girlfriend and shot her between the eyes.
Mock trial requires a mix of lawyerly smarts and acting, Martin explained. The teens try out for different parts — defense attorney, witness, defendant — and ultimately coaches Newell and Adam Steigerwald will pick who delivers the closing arguments or plays the role of accused murderer.
Martin, who used to run the program, has been a sideline figure until this year, when Coronado’s team posed a real threat to — and ultimately beat — Palmer High School at the regional competition in early February.
“I came back to help,” Martin said. “I wanted to watch them win.”
On top of their regular duties, lawyers and judges who work with mock trial teams spend hours coaching the kids through the rules of evidence, assigning them reading, perfecting their court style. Sometimes they miss a practice when they are on trial.
The antics on that Thursday night were a mixture of the murderous and the merry. Martin was frank with the junior varsity team, clustered in the jury seats — “I didn’t expect you to go to state,” he told the freshmen, who also qualified for the state competition in Fort Collins. He meant it as a compliment. “Quite frankly, you guys are junior to nobody.”
The varsity team, for its part, talked expert witnesses and gunshot residue.
The varsity crowd quickly sobered when Steigerwald read them a notebook’s worth of critiques about their winning performance against Palmer High School — another Colorado Springs School District 11 team with a reputation for excellent acting and fast responses.
Zach Bertha got the first round of suggestions.
“You need to not talk out of here — “ Steigerwald said, while pointing to his stomach. “You sound intimidated and you’re not.”
Bertha didn’t agree. “Well I am! The situation is intimidating,” he said.
From the witness box, team captain Emma Bean shot right back, “Well, you can’t act intimidated.”
A week later, the coaches — fellow judges and lawyers — arranged for a scrimmage between the Coronado and Palmer teams. The Coronado kids protested when Newell mentioned the idea at practice, but winning state might come down to beating Palmer, Newell pointed out.
“We are not going to state and letting Palmer beat us at state,” Newell told them.
So, scrimmage they did, in yet another El Paso County courtroom, desecrated by dollops of pizza sauce and a few spilled dixie cups.
Palmer, coached by El Paso County Judge Regina Walter, took the prosecution side, and Coronado the defense.
Bea Zimmermann, the first attorney up for Palmer, was good. She shuffled her papers professionally; her voice was solid. Her only teenage tic was the regular swish and twist of her long blonde hair.
Coronado’s Bean was quick to make frequent objections — based on relevance, or heresay, she listed rules and stood her ground.
The Palmer witnesses countered with drama skills — William Weaver, playing the part of the lead police detective, described the murder scene with a cop’s detachment. Trevor Bills erupted in convincing anger about the murder of his daughter Kat.
Coronado had a hiccup when Michael “Tux” Tuxhorn, who plays the defendant Kriss Everdone, got sick and had to leave.
“OK,” Newells said. “Who wants to play Tux’s part?”
The lawyers dropped their papers; the witnesses broke out of character — and several hands shot into the air.