DOWNTOWN LA — Monday evening, in a Downtown Los Angeles Courthouse, John Adams Middle School eighth grader Francine Rios-Fetchko took the stand as a defendant in a murder trial.

A mock murder trial.

Rios-Fetchko and 15 other JAMS students were competing against three other middle schools in the semifinals of the Los Angeles County Mock Trial competition, a program that pits young people against one another in a simulation of an actual criminal trial.

The young team was on defense Monday evening, with Rios-Fetchko playing a college student accused of murdering her best friend to quash evidence of an ethics violation at her university that could cost her a $20 million inheritance.

If they win, they’ll go to the county championship. The verdict was not read by presstime.

The group has beat out 36 other private and public schools, some with established classes devoted to teaching and rehearsing the students’ roles in the same faux murder case.

The difference: JAMS’ program has only been in place two years, and is run completely outside of the school day.

“It’s incredible, it’s impressive,” said Eva Mayoral, the principal at JAMS and Mock Trial supervisor. “When you sit in on a practice, it’s like law school.”

The program got started under the leadership of two criminal defense attorneys, Bill Sadler and Joel Koury, both of whom have students on the team and have devoted many hours on top of their day jobs to teach the middle schoolers the finer points of prosecution and defense.

It isn’t always easy.

“Complex stuff and middle schoolers doesn’t always mix,” Sadler said. “You need patience, understanding and high expectations.”

So far, the students have met every bar, Sadler said.

“We’ve competed against every kind of school, and we’ve beat them all,” Sadler said. “These kids are capable of a lot.”

For the last two years, Mayoral reached out to teachers to recommend students who they feel might be interested in testing out a career in law. Then, she met with them personally to discuss what Mock Trial is, and how much of a commitment it requires from students.

Those willing to take the time are put on the team, she said.

The students meet in the summer to get introduced to the concepts, and practice gets underway in September when the trial materials arrive. That includes three-page character descriptions detailing what each witness can and cannot know, what evidence is available and the circumstances of the charges.

Students assume roles of the defendant, attorneys and witnesses, which they play over and over again through the different levels of the competition.

They are evaluated on the clarity of their arguments and the understanding of the legal reasoning behind the arguments, as well as the courteous demeanor of the team.

Ben Ross, an eighth grader, plays a college party animal and witness in the case.

“I’m excited and nervous,” Ross said. “I don’t know what the other team has to bring.”

Despite the repetitive nature of the material, each team pursues a new angle to the case, and the judges, actual trial judges from the Los Angeles Superior Court, pull no punches.

“They tell them to support their case,” Mayoral said. “They put them under the gun to articulate what it is that they’re doing … . They go back and forth to persuade the judge to rule in their favor. It’s intense.”

The success of the team has encouraged Mayoral to keep the program going, despite challenges of getting coaches and creating a formalized classroom environment.

“We’d like to grow it, and are looking at the possibility of doubling the team, what that would entail, how we can create an elective course and how to get more kids involved in it,” she said.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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