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Midvale Journal

Hillcrest students to present cases to judges in courtrooms

Feb 03, 2023 09:22AM ● By Julie Slama

Hillcrest High’s mock trial team is seen preparing for their day at Utah’s Supreme Court in front of Justice Diana Hagen. (David Veenstra/Hillcrest High)

Hillcrest High senior Kunal Kamtekar remembers watching “Law & Order” television episodes with his mother, who was a lawyer.

“I heard that mock trial was basically having that court experience and getting to do that line of questioning,” he said. “It’s kind of cheesy how I fell into it, but I found a lot of interest in it. I genuinely want to go to law school now. It’s become my passion and goal.”

Kamtekar is a four-year member of Hillcrest’s mock trial team that is presenting their assigned mock case in front of actual judges. First up, is to present in front of Utah Supreme Court Justice Diana Hagen.

As a mock trial lawyer, Kamtekar gives direct and cross examinations. He also may present the opening and closing statements.

“I’m excited about what we can do with mock trial this year. Last year, some people left and as the lawyer captain, I filled in for different lawyer roles. We almost went to semifinals with a team of five when normally the team size is nine,” he said.

Last year’s court case was a mock murder involving a woman who was in debt to a loan shark.

“The defense was trying to redirect eyes from the business partner to the loan shark because he had a bad reputation of laying down the law. There was a lot of nitpicking and hearsay and how much you can use of what other people were saying in the case,” he said. “I genuinely learned a lot about the ins and outs of how much you can take from someone else saying it even if you have an eyewitness testimony in court.”

Kamtekar said that one witness was a convict who was in jail with a loan shark and “his entire witness story was while he was in jail, he basically confessed to the entire crime.”

“The sad thing is that entire story he gave is hearsay, so I couldn’t really use it to prove any point. You have to kind of work your way around of gathering bits of information not to prove the truth of the matter, but show how the person got there,” he said.

That advice he got from his mother.

“She told me the questioning is not to have the witness confess to the crime, but to elicit information that I can construct my case around. She said to ask the witness for direct facts, then construct that story for the judges,” he said.

Hillcrest students are divided into multiple teams of lawyers, witnesses and bailiffs. Last year, one of the teams argued in front of Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes. 

This year marks the return of mock trial to the Scott M. Matheson Courthouse after not having the opportunity to compete there during COVID-19 years. It will be Kamtekar’s first experience there since it was during his freshman year when the competition moved to online because of the pandemic.

Preparation for this year’s season, which also includes a day at Weber State University, begins in October with students researching. About 30 high school teams compete.

Not only does the team learn courtroom procedures, but they learn the differences between criminal and civil cases.

In addition to explaining the rubric, Hillcrest teacher David Veenstra explains to the team the basics of questioning and the judge’s perspective to help prepare for the competitions, where students compete multiple times in the same trial cases that follows actual cases.

“I usually step in with the new kids and I’ll break down the affidavits with them and kind of go through how you get means, motive and opportunity for a case before the older students teach them more specifics,” said the five-year mock trial adviser. “This team is pretty good. I have a group of juniors and seniors who are good and my officers this year are extremely strong. I don’t want to jinx anything, but I think that we are going to be very competitive this year.”

He relies on mock trial leaders, like Kamtekar who is the lawyer captain, to teach their peers their roles.

“I’m in charge of lawyers, so I make sure people know how to do defenses, openings, closings, how to have good presentational speaking, what information to include when laying out your entire case,” Kamtekar said. “I’ll teach them the ins and outs of crosses, what you can do on a direct and what you can’t do on cross. I make sure everyone knows courtroom procedures like when to approach the judge.” 

Other mock team leaders include president Pravani Gundu, vice president Matthew Chidester and witness captain Morgan Webster. 

Veenstra said that students learn how to find and parse information as well as memorization skills.

Kamtekar, who also is the student body vice president, computer science club vice president, and chess club and National Honors Society member, said through mock trial, he’s learned different skills as well as teamwork, organization and leadership.

“The biggest skill I’ve learned is public speaking, having the ability to like present myself in front of judges in a competent and confident manner,” he said. “I’ve developed a good line of thinking and inquiry. When I read an entire witness alibi, I’m able to construct my line of questioning based on what’s important and finding the stuff that really matters. I found in AP Lang (Advanced Placement English Language and Composition) that I can analyze texts a lot faster to find the content and learning how to research helps with my International Baccalaureate essays.”

For Veenstra, he has appreciated having the relationships with mock trial members like Kamtekar.

“A lot of times, teacher-student relationships are just one and done and I don’t see them again, but that’s not the case with these people,” he said. “They’re bright and hard-working, a real good group.”