The Park School of Baltimore’s Mock Trial team members are not only state champs, but also the first Maryland team to compete at the National High School Mock Trial Championship. And, in a best-case scenario, first time out, they’ve been crowned best in the country. Meet these high-flying legal eagles.
As a middle schooler, Lucy Demsky heard lots of stories about The Park School of Baltimore’s mock trial team. After all, her older brother was on it.
“I actually thought, ‘I am never going to do it,’” Demsky recalls. “Then I got to high school, and my brother and his friends said, ‘Go ahead and audition. ‘You’re going to love it.’”
She didn’t really expect to make the team, but as a freshman, she was “shocked” to see her name posted.
“I spent the whole year learning how to be on a mock trial team, and I fell in love with it,” Demsky says. That was four years ago.
Starting at the ground level, her skills grew through her high school years. This past school year (2020-2021)—as a senior and co-captain—Demsky and the team couldn’t have gone any higher. Here’s how it all happened.
Putting the Ball in Their Court
What exactly is a mock trial team?
“It’s a very creative activity,” says Tony Asdourian, head coach at Park. “Our team never refers to it as a ‘mock’ trial. It’s like we’re in a real courtroom with real lawyers and real witnesses.”
Nine students make the trial team—three lawyers, three witnesses for the prosecution and three defense witnesses. Additional team members play vital roles too. The entire team is engaged in legal strategy during three or four weekly practices, similar to sports or other extracurricular activities.
“Each year, there’s a deep dive into one case,” Asdourian explains. “The state bar association writes the case with advantages for each side. The whole point in the season is one week you’ll be the prosecution. One week you’ll be the defense. You might think that gets boring, but the more you delve into the case, the deeper it becomes.”
You could say trials and tribulations occur throughout the year.
“The legal theories become more sophisticated. You find better and better ways to respond, and there are always surprises—cross examination is where those are revealed,” says Asdourian. “The more thoroughly prepared the team, the better able they are to come up with theories that confound the other team.”
Asdourian has been a physics and math teacher at Park for nearly 20 years. After serving as assistant mock trial coach for six years, he became head coach five years ago. And he says he couldn’t do it without “invaluable” community volunteers who work with the team: Jim Wyda, federal public defender of Maryland; Judge Guido Porcarelli and lawyer Matt Rogers.
All three are wonderful mentors who respect and encourage the students’ ideas, says Asdourian.
The Perfect Storm
The entire season, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, was online and somewhat streamlined, compared with past school years. It was March when Park was named Maryland state champion—their fifth state title, more than any other Maryland high school, public or private.
“It turns out that Maryland had never competed in the national competition. Maryland had never finished in time to qualify for nationals,” Asdourian says.
The chain of events continued to unfold.
“A fascinating thing happened. Unbeknownst to me, my captains started writing people at nationals and the Maryland state level—very polite, well-written emails—asking if it would be possible to go to nationals,” Asdourian says. “I found out a few days in, and so basically with a flurry of emails, they approved, and this was the first time in 37 years that we (or any Maryland team) was able to go.”
It’s probably no coincidence that co-captains Demsky and Aidan Connors served as team lawyers.
Connors was the closer—the lawyer who delivers the final closing words. Those emails must have been convincing.
On April 1, no joke, Park received the case for nationals.
“Part of the challenge is, you only have 5 1/2 weeks to prepare a completely new case,” Asdourian says. “There’s a greater level of intensity.”
The competition, entirely on Zoom, saw Park facing four teams over three days—Florida, Ohio, Georgia (“historically, always a strong team,” Asdourian notes) and Illinois.
“One fascinating aspect of it: They don’t tell you through the tournament if you’ve won or lost your matches,” explains Asdourian. “You can only infer by the strength of the other team whether you’ve won or lost, so you’re trying really hard with each match.”
After the final match, the team gathered, wearing masks, in Demsky’s backyard for the announcement. Her family moved their television screen outdoors.
“The moment they announced second place—and it wasn’t us—everybody went crazy. It was one of the most memorable experiences ever,” Demsky recalls. Realizing what they accomplished—a national championship on their first try—set off shrieks of joy.
And what about her older brother, who encouraged her in the beginning?
“He’s on the Tufts University team now, but when he was on Park’s team, there was not an option to go to
nationals,” Demsky says. “I think he’s just really proud of me. I think he’s a little jealous too.”
On the Case
What legal cases did Park argue during the school year? In Maryland, it was the case of an art heist, based loosely on an actual heist that happened at Boston’s Isabella Stuart Gardener Museum. The defendant in the students’ trials was cleverly named Izzy Garden by the case writer, who coaches UMBC’s mock trial team. And at nationals, a boat captain was on trial for the murder of another boater out at sea.
Students can glean a multitude of skills from a mock trial competition.
“The biggest one is thinking on your feet,” says Demsky. “Mock trial is labeled in the same category as public speaking—being able to articulate yourself—but acting is part of it too.”
Although Demsky enjoyed the experience, she’s at Washington University this fall studying philosophy and psychology, with a long-range plan of attending medical school.
Meantime, Connors is back at Park for her senior year as co-captain, and she’s soaking up all the legal experience. This past summer, she interned in public defender Wyda’s office, thanks to his connection with the team.
“I’m definitely going to do mock trial in college,” says Connors. “I’m thinking of going into law, and I want to do the kind of law where I can really help people and make a difference.”