Sophomore Katie Murray and senior Rebecca Packard, at left, are among 11 students involved in Freeport High School’s Mock Trial course. Karen Massey, at right, is a former teacher and attorney who serves as the students’ coach. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

FREEPORT — After years of feuding that dated back to high school, fishermen Brooke Bentley and Jordan Spencer found themselves in court when the former claimed the latter sank their boat.

It’s a fictional case that has become quite real in the eyes of the 11 Freeport High School students who are both defending and prosecuting the case as part of their Mock Trial course. They will take the skills they’ve gleaned over the past two months to Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland on Nov. 16 and 23, to present their case against student teams from Cape Elizabeth, North Yarmouth Academy, Portland, and other area schools in a competition judged by actual lawyers.

The winning four teams are among the 20 from across the state that will vie for the top spot in semi-final and final rounds after Thanksgiving, after which the lead school will advance to a national round. All the Maine schools are trying the same case, with one school representing the defendant and another the prosecution in a given round.

Freeport High School senior Caroline Doyle practices her closing arguments during her Mock Trial class. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

Freeport, which has made it to the finals before, faces Portland Nov. 16 and Kennebunk the week after.

It was sophomore Katie Murray’s interest in acting that drew her to the program, she said Tuesday in an interview alongside Rebecca Packard, a senior who also took part in Mock Trial last year.

The law field “has always interested me, so I thought it would be fun,” Murray said. “It’s overall a good exercise to improve on your public speaking skills, confidence, critical thinking. You have to think on your feet a lot; you have to adapt. You only have a few pages of writing that you have to make a person out of if you’re a witness. If you’re an attorney, you have to bring this person to life.”

Packard this year has “dived into the really technical things, like trying to help people find the perfect objection rebuttals, trying to understand the rules of evidence in a way that I never could last year because it was all so fast and new,” she said.

Karen Massey, who was a practicing attorney before teaching for 17 years at Freeport High, has since retirement returned to the school as an “attorney coach” for the Mock Trial team. She works in the classroom of social studies teacher Geoff Dyhrberg, who leads the team.

Freeport has participated in the Mock Trial competition for 23 years, she said.

Massey likened the exercise to improvisational comedy.

“It’s acting, but it’s acting where you don’t have a total script; you’re improvising as you go along, based on what happens in the case,” she said. “Because you can prepare all you want, but if you’re a witness, the other team that’s cross-examining you may have ideas that you never thought of, so you’ve got to respond to that based on the information you have about what your witness said.”

The rules of evidence and the objections create a steep learning curve for the students, as they do for real attorneys, Massey said: “It’s a lot for these kids to learn in a couple of months, and they do an amazing job.”

With a drill bit found in Spencer’s car matching the hole in Bentley’s boat, and Spencer claiming he’s never seen the bit before, “it’s all a question of who’s telling the truth based on the facts of the case,” Packard said.

The judge does not rule after the four-hour competition on whether Spencer committed the crime, but on the performances of the students.

“This is true teamwork,” Massey said. “It’s not just how you perform in your role, but you have to be working with everyone else on the team, because otherwise you’ll undercut each other. It’s almost like solos in an orchestra.”

Students working on both sides of the case train each other on how one might rebut the other’s claims, preparing them for any courtroom curve balls they might be thrown by a competing school, Packard said.

“It’s one big puzzle; everyone and everything fits together, and everyone’s playing off each other,” Murray said.

The course has inspired Murray to pursue a career in law. Packard loves Mock Trial, but her heart is set on a life in medicine.

“I assume that most of these kids will not go on in the law; a few of them will,” Massey said. “But to really understand, to walk inside an actual courtroom, to see what it’s actually like, I think it a great experience.”

Amanda Doherty was one Mock Trial student who went on to become Sagadahoc County’s assistant district attorney. She has coordinated Maine’s competition since 2012.

Getting involved and learning the nuances of law can be invigorating for any student wishing to pursue that career, Doherty said Tuesday. Even for those seeking a different path, Mock Trial improves those public speaking skills that Murray mentioned, but also boosts student self-esteem from “seeing something to the finish,” she said, “of seeing the work you put into something (reach) fruition.”

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