More than 20 years after the movie, “The Blair Witch Project” became a phenomenon, it is back in the spotlight — at least when it comes to the 2021-22 high school mock trial season.

The mock trail teams of La Plata and Maurice J. McDonough high schools faced off in (mock) court Tuesday when they heard testimony in the case of the Estate of Aaron Griggs v. Jodie Donahue with Tianna Jenkins, judicial law clerk to Judge H. Jay West of the Circuit Court for Charles County, presiding as the volunteer judge. This year’s preliminary competitions are being held virtually and in person. In Charles County, the in-person events are hosted at the Port Tobacco Courthouse.

Anaya Barnes, front, a senior at La Plata High School, and Charles Wagenbrenner Jr., a sophomore at Maurice J. McDonough High School, are seated as bailiffs during their schools’ mock trial competition held at the Port Tobacco Courthouse.

The La Plata team won its Jan. 25 match against McDonough with a score of 75-74. The next matches for Charles County Public Schools (CCPS) mock trial teams will be held virtually on Feb. 7. The matches are La Plata vs. Laurel High School, McDonough vs. Crossland High School, Henry E. Lackey High School’s mock trial team will compete against Parkdale High School, St. Charles High School will be matched against Bowie High School and North Point High School will compete against Great Mills High School.

Charles County is part of Circuit 7 which includes teams from Calvert, Charles, Prince George’s and St. Mary’s counties. The circuit champions will be announced on Feb. 24 with quarterfinal/regional competitions taking place the week of March 7. The semi-finals/state championship is set for the week of March 14. If the state championship team wishes, it can attend the National Mock Trial Competition in May.

Casey Farren, sophomore, and Amari Casey, senior, at Maurice J. McDonough High School study their notes before the start of the mock trial competition against La Plata High School.

Students who excel at mock trial have some traits in common. “They are meticulous, they pay attention to detail and are assertive,” said Carrie Lovejoy, English teacher at La Plata who splits coaching duties of the school’s mock trial team with English teacher, Shelby Drake. Students need to be willing to put in the work outside of the school day. “It’s five, six extra hours of work a week,” Lovejoy said. “It’s a lot of memorization — not just remembering a script, but knowing the facts back and front to be able to respond to questions.”

The skills gained by participating in mock trial can benefit students beyond high school. “It helps with public speaking, it’s an introduction to the law profession for students who are interested in careers in law,” Madison Moore, McDonough’s mock trial coach and English teacher at the school, said. “Mock trial is good for any student who wants to build their leadership skills — and it builds their confidence.” Anaya Barnes, a senior at McDonough, finds that the club has its advantages academically. “It helps with oral communication and it’s a really fun place to enrich your education,” she said.

This year, teams are arguing the case of the Estate of Aaron Griggs v. Jodie Donahue. The case centers on a college student who fell to his death in a house in the park where “The Blair Witch Project” was filmed (in the case materials, the movie is renamed the Belair Witch Project.) Testimony tells the tale of college student, Griggs, who enjoyed urban exploring of abandoned structures. When college classes went virtual in March 2020, the fictional Griggs and his friends visited the park to look around. Were they told by Jodie Donohue, the property owner, that the structure was sound enough for exploring or not? Is Donohue responsible for Griggs’ death after he fell through a staircase leading to the basement?

La Plata High School students freshman William Greathouse, left, junior Andrea Jovel and sophomore Kira Hubler, prepare for their team’s mock trial competition against Maurice J. McDonough High School. Credit: Charles County Public Schools

Mock trial teams study a 119-page casebook which includes information students need to know to argue both sides of a case whether they are behind the plaintiff or defense desks. They have access to affidavits, police interviews, investigative reports, text messages, maps, articles and photos. Team members are given a role in the match as either attorneys or witnesses. After in-house scrimmages against classmates, the team faces off with those from other schools.

Whitney Butler, a McDonough junior, is in her second year of mock trial. She said she finds the process interesting. “And I like to argue,” she said with a smile. La Plata senior Mary Ellison has been on the mock trial team for three years and is considering a career in law. “I like the comradery we have built as a team and the cases we cover are interesting,” Ellison said.

Mock trial competitions in Maryland have been going on since 1983. Maryland Youth and the Law (MYLAW) oversees the program. MYLAW is an educational organization that provides leadership, life skills and civic awareness to Maryland youth through unique, real-world, law-related learning opportunities. MYLAW is supported by Maryland State Department of Education and Maryland State Bar Association, as well as other organizations.

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