Surrounded by a hushed and expectant crowd, opposing lawyers in Courtroom 2 of Portland’s Federal District Courthouse presented their closing arguments last Thursday in the State of Maine v. Haley Brunetti.

Though no one in the court denied Nicky Blanc had fired the bullet that killed Jackie Purse, was his friend Haley Brunetti also guilty of the murder or of conspiracy to commit murder by convincing Blanc to pull the trigger?

As they wrapped up their case, the attorneys’ impassioned pleas and persuasive intellectual reasoning on both sides of the issue could have caused a jury more than a few heated moments of deliberation before reaching a verdict or becoming hopelessly deadlocked.

Could have. But, this was no ordinary trial. There was no real jury. No real defendant. And no real murder. Instead, students from Bonny Eagle High School and Hampden Academy delivered their polished performances as witnesses and lawyers at this semifinal match of the 2005 Maine State High School Mock Trial Competition.

Government instructor David Ezhaya teaches the two mock trial courses for Bonny Eagle, with alumnus James Haddow as the team’s lawyer coach. Ezhaya says the course prepares students for the workplace and for higher education because they’re given the opportunity to work closely with peers of different ability levels. He also says the class provides them a chance to learn more about “the least understood and viewed branch of the government – the judicial system.”

In his seven years with the mock trial program, Ezhaya says he’s learned much, himself.

“(As a teacher) you need to be patient and a good organizer,” he said. “The students need to respect you – realize you have some knowledge – and you need to keep one step ahead of them.”

There’s no question that the juniors and seniors, who choose Ezhaya’s popular elective, respect and learn from him. One student, senior Anthony Fortunato, 18, has taken the fall semester course three times (it used to be open to sophomores).

“It’s my goal to become a lawyer now – largely because of this class,” Fortunato said.

Previously, Fortunato believed lawyers were “all ambulance chasers.” But Ezhaya’s class helped him recognize that “there’s a lot of idealism” involved as well.

With a heavy workload, the class does not provide students with an easy “A.” On the contrary, the semester begins with an intensive overview of the court system followed by a study of the mock trial rules. In late September, students immerse themselves in the specific mock trial case, which is published by the University of Maine School of Law.

Once they begin the actual case study, students review witness affidavits, analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the case and devise a strategy for both defending and prosecuting the accused.

Senior Griffin Sherry, 18, says he took the course because he “enjoyed Mr. Ezhaya’s government class so much” that he wanted him again for a teacher. Although he is leaning toward a career in art or writing, he says the class and the mock trial experience have given him a greater respect for the judicial system.

“It’s helped me understand the work that goes on behind the scenes,” he said. “It’s not all smoke and mirrors like they show on TV.”

According to Sherry, early on Ezhaya asks students to list their choices for what roles they wish to play in the trial. But, as the semester progresses, casting may change to utilize the students’ individual skills most effectively for the team.

So, although Sherry initially wanted either to give the opening statement or to cross-examine witnesses, Ezhaya convinced him to be the defendant because of his acting experience. And, according to teammate Fortunato, Sherry was perhaps the best witness of any in the state.

With all the advance preparation, by the time the students first compete, they are firmly entrenched in their roles. Although there may be moments of nervousness, they are no longer playing at being lawyers and witnesses – they have become them.

“With each courtroom we go into, the aspect of playing a character like that really grows on you,” Sherry said. “You get a feel for the environment. You feel your life could be on the line.”

The mock trial tourney began on Oct. 31. In that first round, the Bonny Eagle team defeated Sanford. The next two rounds saw them win against Portland and Falmouth, securing them their spot against two-time defending state champion Hampden Academy in the Thursday, Dec. 1 semifinal round.

After a realistic trial and convincing closing arguments in the Brunetti case, the two teams were tied, forcing the three judges to determine a winner using the tiebreaker point system. Though the judges praised Bonny Eagle for a fight well fought, they awarded Hampden Academy the victory by a score of four points, 93 to 89.

While the season may be over for the team, its members have accomplished a great deal. The team has never before reached the semifinal round. And not only did they initially tie the top team in the state, but the team ranked 19th in the nation, as well.

If you ask the students themselves, the pride they have in their team is reflected in their words of praise towards each other.

“Hampden was incredible – the best team we went up against by far,” Sherry said. “But we gave them a run for their money. I’m really proud of all our team has accomplished. As a team, we didn’t succumb to the pressure.”

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