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Awaiting the Verdict

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before the final round of Ventura County’s 17th annual Mock Trial started Monday night, would-be lawyers paced the courthouse halls and recited their opening and closing statements. Make-believe witnesses rehearsed their testimony. And coaches pumped their students with last-minute advice.

“Stay calm and speak slow,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Bamieh said during a pep talk to his team from Buena High School. “Use your heads out there and you’re going to do really well.”

Students from Buena, Camarillo, La Reina and Westlake high schools acted as attorneys, witnesses, bailiffs, clerks and courtroom artists as they argued a make-believe criminal case at the Ventura County Hall of Justice. The four finalists beat teams from 12 other schools during the first two rounds of competition last week.

The winning team, which was to be selected late Monday, will go on to compete in the state finals March 31 through April 2 in Sacramento.

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Brent Nibecker, an attorney from Camarillo High School, said he and his teammates put in countless late-night practice sessions. “Our team has really come together,” he said, minutes before the student trial. “I’m proud of us.”

This year’s case goes like this: Two fictional high school students, Cory Jones and Rene Guerrero, get sick at a unauthorized fraternity party after swigging drinks spiked with Rohypnol, the so-called date-rape drug. Sam Rose, a pledge in the fraternity, is arrested on suspicion of poisoning their drinks, drug possession and assault.

During Monday night’s trial, La Reina prosecution attorney Kelly Drew tried to establish a motive for the crime. “Mr. Rose, did you perceive that you were treated worse than all the other pledges?” she asked assertively.

Westlake student Mathew Koppel, who portrayed Rose for his team, furrowed his brow and lowered his head. “Yes, I felt as though I was.”

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A few minutes later, Drew delivered her closing argument, trying to convince the judge of the defendant’s guilt. “Hell Night was the perfect opportunity for Sam Rose to get even with Jones and Guerrero,” she said.

But her argument didn’t work. Associate Justice Steven Z. Perren ruled not guilty on all three counts. The facts just weren’t strong enough, he said, to convince him that Rose committed a crime.

Parents packed into the courtrooms to watch the teenage attorneys grill witnesses, dissect diagrams and object to testimony.

Susan Baillie said Mock Trial has had a significant impact on her daughter’s interests--and attitude. “She now wants to go into law,” Baillie said of her daughter Christine Agnew, who attends Westlake. “And she’s very argumentative at home.”

Local judges and justices decide which team wins the case, and working lawyers score the students on their persuasiveness and courtroom skills.

Ventura County Public Defender Kenneth Clayman said he is always impressed by the students’ poise and performances.

“I’ve been doing this for 15 years,” he said. “And they get better every year.”

Last year, La Reina took the top title in the county, for the seventh time in 10 years.

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