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Kew Forest mock trial team places second in state

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When the newly launched Kew Forest mock trial team prepared for their maiden case four years ago, watching “Law & Order” simply would not do. Yearning for authenticity, the students went to the Queens County Courthouse to see first hand the law in action.

Four years later their prescience has served them well. Last week for the second year in a row, Kew Forest beat out the Bronx High School of Science as New York City’s mock trial champion.

In the days following at the state finals in Albany, the team won two trials in the first day. After a neck-and-neck final round, however, they ultimately lost the decision to William Floyd High School of Long Island.

Christopher Spelman, the student’s trial coach — and by day a Latin teacher — said the team was “very pleased to have had such a successful season” despite the last-minute defeat.

The mock trial competition was created 20 years ago by the New York Bar Association. Each year it provides mock legal cases for New York state high school students to act out in competition. The finalists travel to Albany where they try their case in the federal courthouse.

This year students tried a case centering on toxic dumping. The prosecutors argued that a corporation illegally dumped toxic chemicals into the environment. The young defenders contended there was no evidence connecting the company to the crime.

The bar association also encourages its members to coach, matching members with competing teams. Scott Kessler, Kew Forest’s attorney, has the added charm of having attended the high school.

Kessler said he first met the students four years ago when they toured the Queens County Courthouse. “I recognized the uniforms,” he said. So he introduced himself and has been their coach ever since.

An adjunct professor at St. John’s University Law School, Kessler teaches similar skills to his own students — trial advocacy, objections, and opening statement formats.

And the high schoolers hold their own.

“They do very well. They work extremely hard and they’re very eager to learn,” said Kessler.

Kew Forest senior Chantal Tortoroli, 18, who has performed as attorney for both the prosecution and the defense in various cases, said she thrived in the fast-paced setting.

“Being in the court — it’s an adrenaline rush. You sit in there, and the judge walks in and you know you’re on. I can only imagine what actors feel like,” she said.

Tortoroli, who plans to attend McGill University in Montreal next fall, said that while she has always enjoyed public speaking and arguing, she joined the team on a whim. But she has made lasting friendships with students of other ages.

“We have two freshmen, two sophomores. I would never know freshmen as friends. It’s a good chance to meet people. Only they understand what you put into it,” she said.

What Tortoroli and her teammates put into it is an average of 20 hours of work outside of their regular class time. The students meet to prepare four times after school each week, then at home, then on the telephone, Spelman said.

“The success is so much the result of their hard work,” he said. “The kids just put in a tremendous amount of hours.”

Reach reporter Jennifer Warren by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 155.

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