The prosecutor wore flip-flops. The jury ate pizza, studying case notes. A key witness was texting.
Half-deflated balloons bobbed in the corner of the room. Gift wrap ribbon drooped on a sign, “Congratulations State Champions,” was pinned to a wall.
That celebration is over for the Fletcher High School mock trial team. The big challenge, the national competition in Madison, Wis., is this week.
Ed Lange, the judge, coach and commander of the Fletcher High School National Trial Team, stood in front of his students, pointing to various team members like a football coach designing a play. His stance was solid and unwavering.
“Are you texting?” he challenged a witness on the stand during an evening practice. His students are state champs, sharp and serious. But they still have teenage moments.
“We all have to have our heads in this,” he said.
He paced toward the prosecution, moving his hands as he spoke. The fluorescent light of the classroom glistened on his Notre Dame athletic ring.
A mock trial competition isn’t so different from an athletic match. It’s about being quick on your feet and trusting your teammates. Mental endurance takes conditioning.
The former college baseball player, who began teaching law after a knee injury benched his sports dreams, started Fletcher High’s mock trial team in 1989 and has been the volunteer coach ever since.
Lange, who also teaches high school classes such as constitutional law, built the team a courtroom — with a witness stand, jury section and audience seating — with donated money, some from his own pocket. The next school year will be his last before retirement.
He sat down in his swivel office chair during one practice and leaned forward.
For students across the country, mock trials mean more than a resume line on a college application. It’s a 31-year-old tradition of tossing energetic teens into a courtroom with fake controversy but real stakes. While the national champions don’t win any money, the bragging rights carry a lot of weight.
It’s a sophisticated system and it comes close to a real trial, said Jay Howell, an attorney from Jay Howell & Associates, who volunteers as a law expert for Fletcher’s team.
Each team has its actors — the defense, the prosecution and witnesses — who perform the cases. They’re given evidence, laws and some hints of motives.
The rest is up to them to glean from their competition. This year’s court battle involves a dead entrepreneur, energy drinks, zombie folklore and a substantial fortune.
Forty-six teams from 42 states plus territories and South Korea will compete in Wisconsin from Thursday to Saturday, and all are among the best young debaters from their areas.
They’ve spent weeks after school learning scripts and case law. They’ve practiced curbing slang words and stutter speech — the “ums” and “likes” that plague everyday conversation.
Lange brings in First Coast lawyers — Howell, Carson Lange with Rogers Towers and Amber Rumancik with Foley & Lardner — to help students navigate the mire of legal terms.
Year after year, Lange said, he watches students evolve from timid teenagers to confident young men and women.
Even those who start out already boisterous and confident leave the competitions poised and focused.
Anastasia Pedersen, a Fletcher High senior on the mock trial team, said even though she wasn’t shy, she was afraid to speak up in class before she joined the team.
“I didn’t think what I had to say was worth talking [about] in front of them,” she said. “Now, I’m definitely confident.”
While searching for a summer job, she said, she received a cold call to talk with a manager.
“Before, I’d say, ‘Oh no. I don’t want him to call me.’ But now, I’m like, ‘Yeah, let’s talk now,’ ” she said.
Lange said in his 24 years training the mock trial team, he’s had about 140 students go on to law school. About 30 students became law enforcement officers, including some with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and the FBI.
As practice rolled on another evening, Lange watched from the edge of his seat.
“I love what you guys are doing,” he said after a run-through. “I love it.”
The road to Wisconsin has been a long one, but the journey is ending.
Soon, hundreds of students will pull out their suits, the first for some, and adjust neckties and heels.
Students will take their places. The judges will nod.
Meredith Rutland: (904) 359-4161