Illinois prosecutors and defense attorneys could face formidable opponents in the future judging from performances of some 200 area high school students at the Northwest Suburban Bar Association's Mock Trial Invitational Saturday in Rolling Meadows.
The real attorneys who served as jurors and judges who presided over the cases complemented the students on their knowledge, preparation, presentation and decorum.
"I was extremely impressed," Cook County Court Judge Jill Cerone Marisie said of the students' legal knowledge and familiarity with courtroom procedures. "They did their homework."
It was the association's 14th mock trial tournament, said Arlington Heights attorney Jay Andrew, the group's mock trial chairman.
And for many of the students, it served as a warm up for a state competition, which takes place next month at the University of Illinois Springfield. Saturday's mock trial is not connected to the state competition, yet it attracted six teams that have already qualified for state, including regional champions St. Charles East High School and Timothy Christian High School in Elmhurst. Elmhurst's York and Mundelein high schools will also attend the state competition as wild card teams.
Many of the participants have an interest in practicing law, said Andrew, but not everyone dreams of becoming F. Lee Bailey, the famed defense attorney whose clients included Patty Hearst and O.J. Simpson.
Even students who don't intend to pursue a career in law benefit from mock trial competition, said Cerone Marisie, who participated in moot court as a law student. They develop self-confidence, public speaking skills and they learn to think on their feet, she said. More importantly, "they learn early on that preparation is the key."
Aspiring lawyer Taylor Hoogendoorn, 17, agrees.
"A lot of hard work goes into each case," said the Timothy Christian junior.
Maine East High School junior Syed Jawad Hussain credits the experience with improving his critical thinking.
"I like cross examination, that's where you get to prove your case," said the 17-year-old aspiring lawyer, whose older siblings also participated in mock trial events.
"I'm not a fan of public speaking and it's helped me talk in front of people," said Rachel Sterling, a Glenbard East High School sophomore from Lombard. "It started out more nerve-racking, now it's more comfortable."
The students litigated a case about liability for a car crash involving two 18-year-old high school students who had attended a party with no adult supervision and where alcohol was available. The plaintiff had a blood-alcohol level of .02 and the defendant had a BAC of .05, both were subject to the zero-tolerance police. Students, who received the case last year and have been competing in similar tournaments since November, argued both the plaintiff and defense positions during Saturday's two rounds of competition.
York High School took first place, followed by St. Charles East and Timothy Christian in third. The judges also recognized York team members Jissy Cyriac as best witness and Eric Moreau as best attorney.
For veteran St. Charles East team member Kathryn Belanger, a senior, this year marks the first she'll be competing for the state title.
"We're all really excited," said Belanger, who was poised and prepared during her witness examinations.
The St. Charles resident and law school hopeful described Saturday's competition as a dress rehearsal for the state tourney and said it helped her and her teammates fine-tune their presentation.
"We tried a couple of new things," added teammate Clayton Davis, a 15-year-old freshman. "Some worked and some didn't."
Before joining the team this year, Davis' knowledge of court proceedings came from NBC's "Law & Order." Now, law school is "definitely an option," he said.