Fort Worth Teen Court Uses Mock Courtroom to Prepare for Competition
Kim Le took the witness stand and admitted having beer in her Jeep while hanging out at the park with her younger cousin. The 17-year-old high school student said she knew it was against the law to possess alcohol at her age — including the unopened six-pack police found in the back seat and two open containers found in the console.
Despite her honesty, prosecutors didn’t go easy on her.
“You agree that your actions were against the peace and dignity of the state?” asked prosecutor Brianna Riddick.
“Yes,” responded Le.
A short time later, Riddick’s trial partner, Tashaya Clayton, asked Judge Pat Summers to sentence Le to the maximum for being a Minor in Possession of Alcohol.
“There was no (legal) reason for her being in possession of alcohol,” Clayton argued before the judge. “We ask for 60 community service hours so the defendant can learn from her mistakes.”
A moment later, the courtroom erupted in applause and smiles.
A moment later, the courtroom erupted in applause and smiles. Ordinarily, punishing a teen for violating the law would not be a jovial occasion, but this was no ordinary trial. Le wasn’t actually a teen, but 27-year-old Deborah Bankhead, a defense attorney who works at the law firm of Varghese Summersett. Bankhead volunteers for Fort Worth Teen Court and played the teen defendant role to help them prepare for an upcoming mock trial competition next month.
For much of the morning on Saturday, two three-member teams — from Vision Academy Christian School in Fort Worth and Brewer High School in White Settlement — were patiently put through their paces, playing prosecutors, defense attorneys, and witnesses against “real life” attorneys. They practiced making opening and closing statements and questioning witnesses on the stand at Varghese Summersett, the only criminal defense firm in Fort Worth with a mock courtroom.
“Practicing in a realistic environment will hopefully give them a leg up in the competition,” Bankhead said. “Going against real attorneys really raises the bar. If they can respond to a licensed attorney, they’re more likely to be prepared for anything a teen attorney can throw at them.”
Several attorneys, who were on hand to play various roles or offer feedback, were impressed by what they saw and heard.
“I think they did a lot better than a lot of young prosecutors,” quipped Steve Bankhead, a former chief felony prosecutor who now works as a criminal defense and family law attorney in Dallas.
Defense attorney Benson Varghese, Managing Partner of Varghese Summersett, called the teen’s efforts “phenomenal.”
“I’ve judged high school, undergraduate, and law school competitions and I was surprised with the quality of your presentation,” said Varghese, who was also a former prosecutor. “You are very confident and comfortable in the courtroom.”
Anna Summersett, Partner at Varghese Summersett who has also worked both sides of the docket and is Board Certified in Criminal Law, echoed those sentiments. “I thought you did really well,” she said. “I was really impressed.”
Both teams will compete on April 1 in the 2017 Texas Teen Court Competition, which will be held at the City of Fort Worth Southwest Courthouse. They will compete against other teen court teams from around the state in mock trials.
Teen courts are sanctioned by the Texas Legislature for teenagers 10 to 17 years old who receive Class C citations. The juvenile defendants have their cases heard by peers who serve as prosecutors, defense attorneys, and jurors. Each year, a handful of teen court participants from various programs also compete in the annual mock trial competition.
The Brewer High School Team — which consists of Braxton Cannon, 15; Jessica Johnson, 15; and Tori Fortman, 17 — will be competing together for the first time this year. The Vision Academy Christian School team — made up of Riddick, 16, Clayton, 14, and Cameron Alexander, 14 — are veterans. They took second place last year in the competition.
Susan Wolf, who along with Jesse Medina runs the Fort Worth Teen Court program, is proud of the work both teams have put in to prepare for the upcoming competition.
“Hopefully, we’re the ones to beat,” she said.
Varghese Summersett PLLC regularly allows other organizations and law firms use their mock courtroom. For more information or to reserve the space, please call 817-203-2220.