Students Show Off Their Legal Prowess at Mock Trial Finals

Saturday January 27, 2024

Last July, in a 10th-floor suite at the Bells Hotel on California’s central coast, the body of Kieran Sunshine was found lying on the floor, dead from an apparent stabbing. The gruesome details were like those that play out in first-degree murder trials every day, only this time, they were fabricated. The fictitious case was People vs. Clark, argued and defended by students participating in this year’s Mock Trial regional finals held today at the Kern County Superior Court in downtown Bakersfield.

Under the expert coaching of volunteer local attorneys and classroom teachers, more than 400 students from 17 teams have been preparing for their roles as attorneys, witnesses, and court officials over the past several months. Centennial High School and Stockdale High School were the two top seeds and met in Department 9 in a showdown that was described as the best in recent memory by the four attorney judges in the room.

Centennial’s pretrial attorney Philip Dailey presents his case.

Stockdale High School’s attorneys and defendant (far right) await the verdict in the 2024 Mock Trial finals.

“This is an outstanding group of students in my courtroom today,” said Kern County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Twisselman. “Every one of you is a winner.”

Judge Twisselman ultimately found the defendant, represented by the team from Stockdale High School, not guilty of first degree murder. However, he pointed out that his judgement does not affect the outcome of the final scores. That is the responsibility of the attorney judges.

In the end, the powerhouse team from Centennial High School claimed victory again, its fifth year in a row and nine out of the past ten years. Centennial earned a spot to move on to the California tournament in March and was awarded $2,500 from the Kern County Bar Association Foundation to help cover travel expenses.

Third-year Centennial coach Trisha Brown says the school’s success can be attributed to many things. 

“My predecessor, Brett Dobson, created a system and a culture that fostered a spirit of learning and dedication that helped set the foundation for success,” she said. “And we have phenomenal students. They ask questions, constantly ask for feedback, and want to grow and learn.”

Rounding out the winning formula is partnering with skilled local attorney and alumni coaches, supportive parents, and Centennial’s admin team, she said.

Local attorney Abby Auffant has been judging Mock Trial for many years and says it is a highlight of her year.

“I think students benefit the most from learning how to think on their feet,” she said. “Building their confidence in an actual courtroom setting is such an amazing opportunity.”

Centennial’s Hayliee Tat argues her case as fellow attorneys Daniela Dibble and Mary Calley look on.

Auffant says when she was their age, she did not have the confidence or the courage to do what they do.

“I admire [the students] so much for taking that leap and having the confidence to be there for each round,” she said. “I make it a point to tell the students that every year.”

Today’s competition started with a pretrial motion where students showcased their strategic thinking, persuasive skills, and understanding of legal concepts. In that motion, students argued real case law and applied it to the facts of the fictitious case. Judge Twisselman frequently interrupted them to test their knowledge of case law and how they were using it.

“How skilled the students are in their interactions with the judge, as well as how adeptly they can get back into their arguments, are key factors in my scoring,” Auffant said. 

Students then made their opening statements, meticulously laying out their case with precision and flair before the courtroom became a battleground of wits and rhetoric. There is an element of theatrics as well, with the aspiring lawyers calling witnesses, examining evidence, and passionately advocating their cases.

Coach Brown says that about half of her students say they aspire to pursue a career in the legal field.

“The students give me faith in our next generation – whether they are our next generation of attorneys or not,” Auffant said.

Photo Gallery

2024 Mock Trial Awards

Team Awards
1st — Centennial High
2nd — Stockdale High
3rd — Wonderful Prep Academy Green
4th — Golden Hawks (Centennial’s Second Team)
5th — Liberty High

Courtroom Artist Competition 
1st — Sannho Nguyen, Centennial
2nd — Madisyn Tadeo, Garces
3rd — Elise Enoch, Liberty

Courtroom Journalist Award
1st — Keen Nguyen, Liberty
2nd — Dayanara Bravo, Wonderful Black
3rd — Landon Ramirez, Centennial 

Top Attorney Award
1st — Maria Roberson, Liberty and Sonidel Garcia, Wonderful Black (TIE)
2nd — Daniela Dibble, Centennial
3rd — Sareen Evans, South
4th — Mary Calley, Centennial and Nayela Pena, Wonderful Green (TIE)
5th — Jocelyn Sandoval, Golden Hawks
6th — Ilhia Garcia, Delano; Piper Swartley, Garces; Thomas Buckley, Garces; Anastasia Ruiz, Highland (TIE)

Top Witness Award
1st — Eduardo Choo, Golden Valley and Julia Powers, Liberty (TIE)
2nd — Maya Wright, Highland
3rd — Rylee Douglass, Patriots and Wesley Alvario, Wonderful Green (TIE)
4th — Molly Cowan, BHS and London Schaffner, Garces (TIE)
5th — Tanvi Thailapalle, Stockdale
6th — Adrian Guerra, Garces; Jasmine Barakat, Liberty; Fran Datugan, Ridgeview; Simira Landaverde, Ridgeview (TIE)

Honor Court
The top two students from each team who consistently performed the best throughout the course of the two-month competition were named to the Honor Court. They were:

Jasmine Celedon and Noah Haushalter
Mary Calley and Philip Dailey
Golden Hawks
Jocelyn Sandoval and Sawyer Sackewitz
Ilhia Garcia and Vincent Gonzales
Wendy Chapa and Ethyn Rodriguez
Garces Memorial
Julia Maristany and Veronique Curutchague
Golden Valley
Alina De La Huerta and Jose Ramirez
Rachel Camarena and Aiden Hughes
Julie Powers and Maria Robison
Evelyn Orozco-Alvarez and Samreen Sandhu
Parjot Sodhi and Madelyn Evans
Angelica Badeker and Joselyn Lopez
Sereen Evans and Malakai Williams
Lilliana Brownlee and Anmol Grewal
Wonderful Prep (Black)
Sonidel Garcia and Jessica Barraza
Wonderful Prep (Green)          
Nayley Pena and Weslee Albarillo
Wonderful Prep Lost Hills    
Anna Felix and Jessenia Anaya

Kern County Mock Trial is funded with a grant from the Harry and Ethel West Foundation and is sponsored by the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, Kern County Bar Association, Kern County Superior Courts of California, Kern County Sheriff’s Department and Sheriff’s Reserves.

By Robert Meszaros

By Robert Meszaros

Rob Meszaros is Director of Communications for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, where he has served since 2012. In his role, Meszaros oversees media relations, internal and external communication strategies, publications, Marcom, branding, and multi-media content creation. Before joining KCSOS, Meszaros was the PIO for CSU Bakersfield and earlier worked for seven years at The Bakersfield Californian.