Starting from Scratch
by Hon. Jack F. Smith
Shortly after I retired from the full-time duties of an Arapahoe County District Court judge, Kat Haskins served notice on me: "Jack, I’m not going to let you rest until you visit the La Academia School at the Denver Inner City Parish." The wife of my senior pastor, and recent Minoru Yasui Volunteer of the Year Award recipient, I knew not to take her lightly! Kat has tutored kids at the school for years, so, knowing what was good for me, I spent a morning with the students at 910 Galapago, in Denver’s Baker District, and came away in love with the staff, students and school. As a newly-retired judge with only 60 days of senior judge service a year, I had ample time to try to impact these kids’ lives in a meaningful way.
La Academia is a school privately sponsored by the Denver Inner City Parish. It serves some 60 students from Denver’s predominantly Hispanic west side. The majority of students are from low-income families, and most are of Hispanic heritage. Though I had met them only once, my instincts told me the students in La Academia could form a mock trial team and compete in the Colorado Bar Association’s Mock Trial Competition in 2005.
When I was on the Bench full-time, I presided over several high school mock trial competitions, and was thrilled with a chance to actually coach a team. Todd Clough, La Academia’s charismatic principal, and Leonard Surprenant, the school’s energetic social studies teacher, were enthusiastic and incredibly supportive. The three of us quickly identified 15 students who would make viable candidates for our mock trial team. Our competitors would be other Denver high schools, and this would be La Academia’s first mock trial team.
We got started in February 2004, when I brought the students to my "old" courthouse at the Arapahoe County Justice Center to witness the 2004 High School Mock Trial Competition. With wide-eyes and intense focus, the students watched with awe, impressed by the teams they observed. They knew they too wanted a mock trial team. The next step was observing the "real deal." We sat in on several serious adult criminal jury trials in Arapahoe County. As the school year continued, I worked with the students, keeping in touch with them as it ended and throughout the summer.
As the 2004–2005 school year commenced, we began in earnest, studying the court system, criminal law, and the Rules of Evidence. The kids caught on quickly, with an uncanny, seemingly innate ability to pursue investigation and questioning witnesses. They were, of necessity, survivors — a quality that helped them develop into quite competitive mock trial team members. Four metropolitan-area lawyers (Neil Silver, Samuel Santistevan, Carrie Clein and Melissa Drezen-Smith) helped us each Monday evening as volunteer coaches. By example and persistence, their help was invaluable to the team’s eventual success.
In November, we received the case to be argued for the 2005 competition. It was a first-degree murder case filled with conflicting evidence, bloody details, and complex legal and
By January 2005, the team had diminished to ten students, but was going strong. Two hard-working students portrayed several "roles" in the trial. Our team make-up was four boys, six girls.
It was finally time for our "day in court." We gathered in the Denver City & County Building courtrooms the last weekend in February to begin the two-day competition. We won our first two rounds on Friday, and the students were ecstatic! Saturday’s competition would determine the two teams that would advance to the state tournament. That morning we went against North High School in the first round, then J.F. Kennedy in the second round. The results were finally announced: J.F. Kennedy and George Washington would advance to State; La Academia placed third. We lost to George Washington by only three points!
As coaches, we were overjoyed, although not too surprised with our success. The energy of the kids was truly amazing, and their innate competitiveness paid off at every turn. Half of the team will return next year, and the rest of the school is enthusiastic and supportive. Those returning students will form the nucleus of a terrific team that we are hopeful will get us into the state tournament in 2006.
Nothing I’ve done professionally has been more rewarding than helping La Academia’s mock trial team accomplish so much in their first year at the competition. Watching the students mature emotionally as they met the challenges of portraying lawyers and witnesses was amazing. I have no doubt that several of the students will go on to study law and, with perseverance and support, become good attorneys.
To volunteer for the Colorado Bar Association’s Mock Trial Program, contact Carolyn Ferber at email@example.com.