Riverhead mock trial team goes deep in playoffs

Riverhead High School’s recently revived mock trial team made it all the way to the Suffolk County playoffs this year, losing a close case last week when Blue Wave prosecutors failed to convict a fictitious suspected arsonist — who went free after a sturdy defense from the Ward Melville legal team.

The playoffs are the culmination a series of tournaments held annually in counties all across the state.

For each competition, students are given a single case to work on throughout the year — complete with witness affidavits, stipulations and a simplified version of the rules of evidence and procedure. From match to match, each team switches between playing the prosecution and playing the defense. Students also take on the roles of every witness who takes the stand.

Once in the playoffs, students make their cases in actual county courtrooms before active county judges who ultimately decide the innocence or the guilt of each defendant. Last week’s mock trial was ruled on by Suffolk County District Administrative Judge John Leo in Central Islip. 

The Riverhead team, ranked 16th, faced off against the county’s No. 1 ranked school, according to attorney Glenn Warmuth and chief district court clerk Leonard Badia, who oversee the Suffolk County program and organize the annual tournament.

“Ward Melville have been in the finals the past few years,” Mr. Warmuth said in an interview before last week’s showdown. “They were our county champions a few times in the past few years, so they’re a very strong team. But … we’ve now eliminated half the [32] teams, so everyone who is left is good. These are good, solid teams.”

Mr. Warmuth and Mr. Badia said they have increased the number of schools competing from 23 to 32 since taking charge of the program eight years ago.

“So Riverhead, when we added them last year, we were really excited,” said Mr. Warmuth. “Riverhead was almost in the playoffs last year. They just missed out. This year they were the last team to make it, so it’s very exciting.”

More than 400 schools across the state participate in the annual Mock Trial Tournament, and with its 42-year history, New York’s program is one of the largest and longest running in the nation, according to the state’s Bar Association.

Mr. Badia said participating schools are ranked on a point system which evaluates a team’s overall confidence, compliance with the rules and knowledge of the case, their advocacy, whether for the defense or the prosecution, and a series of other factors.

Prior to last week’s defeat, Riverhead had lost two previous matches during the tournament, but their high total point score qualified them to advance.

As they waited to head into Judge Leo’s courtroom, team members talked about strategy and preparation. They said they study together nearly every day after school, usually until 5 or 6 p.m.

“Typically, for defense, we use a more dramatic scene to wave the judge our way,” said Riverhead captain Lorena Correa. “When we’re prosecution, we use the more factual case, and really cut through to show the judge the facts that are present and how we’re going to win the case.”

Teammate Leah Coty said delivery is vital.

“It’s mainly the confidence that we have, and the way that we speak is probably one of the most important things to indicate that we know everything we need to know,” she said.

The high school’s program is run by legal advisor and Riverhead attorney Lane Bubka — who for many years worked with Riverhead’s Youth Court, a diversionary legal avenue for teenage nonviolent defendants in which they are judged by a jury made up of high school students. 

Mr. Bubka said the mock trial program is an important opportunity for local young people interested in the law. He revived the long dormant after school activity last year.

“I was on the mock trials team when I went to Riverhead High School,” he said. “It’s a good program.”

This case in this year’s tournament is about a suspected act of arson in a fictional town called Bliss, Nirvana. All the of the names of the witnesses and the defendant are gender-neutral to allow students to confidently play each role.

Lindsay Gordon, owner of Gordon Paint & Supplies in Bliss, is charged with arson for allegedly burning down the store for insurance money. But there are surprise twists in the case, which point in other directions, too.

“Your Honor, your time is valuable and we do not want to waste it,” Riverhead’s Gabby Boffi said in her opening statement for the prosecution. “We will show you that Lindsay Gordon had the motive, means and opportunity to commit arson in the third degree and we will prove that beyond a reasonable doubt.” She continued for several minutes, detailing the state’s case.

When Ward Melville began its defense, it became clear there were others with motive to burn down the paint store, including a longtime employee who was “unceremoniously” terminated weeks before the fire, a former business partner in need of cash and an arson investigator with potentially conflicted interests.

In the end, the judge ruled in favor of the defense.

Still, he complimented Gabby.

“You had a good opening statement,” he said, before suggesting that she consider trying to “slow it down.”

Just before the trial started, Judge Leo issued some brief post-tournament instructions to both teams. 

“When you came here, did your schools announce it or put it up on an electronic bulletin board — that you got into the quarterfinals for the county?” the judge inquired. “No? Well, when you go back you tell them that if there was a basketball team or a soccer team that got here … This is important. And it’s even harder to do. So you go back and you tell them that.”