CAPE ELIZABETH – “Objection,” Josie Barth interjected, before proceeding to dispute the relevance of a question posed by Liv Babine.

Barth’s legal reasoning didn’t exactly satisfy the judge, Richard O’Meara, law coach of the Mock Trial Team at Cape Elizabeth High School.

Fortunately, the poised and articulate sophomore and future lawyer has a few more days to get it right.

“You need a better argument, but I’m going to sustain that one,” said O’Meara, a Cape Elizabeth resident who’s a lawyer with Murray, Plumb & Murray in Portland.

Through next week, the Cape Elizabeth team will be practicing daily for the 2011 National High School Mock Trial Championship, to be held May 5-7 in Phoenix.

The team won the 2010 Maine State High School Mock Trial Competition in December, taking back a title that Cape Elizabeth last won in 2002. The team also broke the winning streak that Hampden Academy held from 2003 to 2009.

The win baffled everyone. While Cape Elizabeth usually makes it to the state finals — along with Hampden, Sanford and Lewiston — the team had lost several talented members when seniors graduated in 2009 and 2010.

Taking the state title was especially sweet since Cape Elizabeth school officials had considered cutting the team’s funding last spring, students said. Team members used their formidable public speaking skills to persuade them not to make the cut.

“Nobody expected to win,” said Emily Muscat, a junior. “It was really, really surprising, but it was really great.”

The national championship promises to be a lot tougher.

Maine teams had three months to prepare for the state finals, honing their cases and presentations through several levels of competition. Teams in the nationals received trial materials on April 1, giving them about a month to prepare. The 126-page packet includes a case summary, the initial complaint, witness statements, trial exhibits and relevant laws and rules.

The made-up civil case involves an Indian tribe and a uranium mining company. The tribe is claiming breach of contract because the mine, on land leased from the tribe, has tainted water sources and the company has started expanding the mining operation. The tribe is seeking compensatory damages and an injunction to block the expansion.

Cape Elizabeth will send 11 of its 22 team members to Arizona; in addition to Babine, Barth and Muscat, they are Kevin Hare, Dorothy Janick, Will McCarthy, Claire Muscat, Katie Page, Brian Taintor, Jack Tierney and Chelsey Whynot.

The students are working in teams, preparing to be prosecutors, defense attorneys and/or witnesses in the case. They met for practices through April vacation, including Easter Sunday. The high school’s library is their courtroom for several hours each evening.

With O’Meara’s guidance, the students are crafting openings and closings, developing direct and cross examinations and generally weaving together bits of information around a central theme to prove their case.

“The theme is really important, because the judge and the jury are going to remember the first and last thing you say,” said Babine, a senior who plans to become a lawyer.

Helping the students with their articulation and overall presentation skills is their performance coach, Mary Page, a history teacher at Cape Elizabeth High who has a background in journalism and corporate communications. Her daughter, Katie, a junior, is on the team.

Everyone involved says the mock trial competition is an intellectual challenge as demanding as any sport. They say the team is a family and note that several current members followed siblings into the group. They also say the team is fun and frustrating, exciting and confidence-building.

“I was afraid of public speaking, so I thought it would be a good way to improve my skills,” Katie Page said. “I’ve learned that you just have to prepare, prepare, prepare.”

O’Meara has witnessed the transformation dozens of times through the years, including stints coaching mock trial teams at Gray-New Gloucester and Falmouth high schools.

“I think it’s important, as a member of the bar association, to encourage kids to become lawyers,” O’Meara said. “But it doesn’t matter if you’re not going to be a lawyer. These skills are transferable.”

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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