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The students of Overbrook High School’s 2004 state champion mock trial team have overcome a unique set of obstacles so far on their way to the national competition. In addition to the regular burden of learning the rules of evidence and committing to memory lengthy opening and closing arguments, the students from Overbrook, a predominantly African-American school in West Philadelphia, have had to worry about whether their wardrobes measured up against the clothes of opponents from wealthier suburban schools. Or whether an all-white team from northeastern Pennsylvania would, when defeated by the all-black Overbrook squad, contest the victory on the ground that Overbrook had only won because its members are from the inner city. Where clothes are concerned, the Barristers’ Association of Philadelphia, along with several other benefactors, have made sure that the students will be dressed nattily — and more important, in lighter, cooler colors — as they head into the heat of the National Mock Trial Finals in Orlando, Fla., scheduled for this week. Part of the proceeds from a fund-raising dinner held by the Barristers’ Association during the weekend has been earmarked to reimburse money already given to the team. As far as the allegations of bias on the part of contest judges go, the students will just have to let their skills speak for them. Overbrook’s team has faced charges of unfair victory in the past, according to the school’s mock trial coach, social studies teacher Philip Beauchemin. When the Overbrook team won the Pennsylvania Bar Association Young Lawyers Division Statewide Mock Trial Championship in 1997 — going on to place 11th in the national competition — vanquished Pennsylvania opponents complained that Overbrook’s lead “lawyer” had been too effective, Beauchemin said. Those complaints led to a change in the PBA’s rules regarding how much an individual student can contribute to his or her mock trial team’s efforts. This year, Beauchemin said, Overbrook faced an all-white team from Abington Heights High School in Clarks Summit, Lackawanna County, in the state semifinals. One member of the 11-member panel of lawyers acting as a jury for the competition was black, Beauchemin said. In a letter notifying the PBA of its appeal of the lawyer-panel’s decision, representatives of Abington Heights asserted that members of the Overbrook team of using “slang and improper diction” and requested a semi-finals rematch “judged by jurors whose affinities are without question.” “The practice of stacking the jury to accommodate schools from the inner-city flys [sic] in the face of all we have attempted to teach our students concerning the efficacy of the judicial system,” Cindy A. Sheridan of the Perry Law Firm in Scranton wrote in a letter dated April 6, 2004. “They have since crawled away with their tails between their legs,” Beauchemin said. Beauchemin said that Abington Heights had since withdrawn its appeal. Barristers’ Association President James Elam, himself an Overbrook alumnus, said that it was important for the Overbrook team to be dressed as professionally as opponents from more affluent schools are expected to be at nationals. “There’s a need for these kids to have some kind of advantages, based on the disadvantages and bias they’ve faced,” Elam said. Barristers’ Association correspondence secretary Dionne Savage, an Overbrook alumna who competed in mock trials as a student, said that less emphasis is put on dress at the lower levels of competition than at the national stage. “Sometimes when you’re in high school and competing,” Savage said, “you just grab whatever and put something together.” Originally, the money for new clothes came from someone used to assisting the Overbrook team in non-financial ways. Khadijah Scott, a judicial clerk to Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Kathryn S. Lewis — and yet another Overbrook graduate and member of the Barristers’ Association — began coaching the team temporarily when Beauchemin had to take time off due to an illness. Soon, the team members were spending several hours every night at her house, which is just down the street from the high school. When members of the team — which expanded from five to eight students after winning the state championship — begged her for white suits to wear under the hot Florida sun, she couldn’t say no. “The confidence level is tremendous,” Scott said of the team. “They’ve really gotten a handle on this stuff. It comes down to finesse when you’ve gotten to this level of the competition.” Scott, who has since been reimbursed for the cost of the suits, will be accompanying the team down to Orlando. Their airfare and hotel accommodations are being paid for by the PBA, Beauchemin said. In addition to the Barristers’ Association, Beauchemin and Scott said, Temple and Overbrook alumni, law firms, the Philadelphia School District, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, and Philadelphia City Councilman Juan Ramos have all contributed to the trip’s funding. Beauchemin, a 16-year Overbrook veteran who also has a law degree, said teams from 44 states would compete at this weekend’s competition. The teams will compete in four trials — twice as the defense, twice as the prosecution — and hope that they will rank high enough over the course of those contests to make it to the national finals. “For a regular, neighborhood school like Overbrook to win is unprecedented,” Beauchemin said. He added later, “This changes their lives, much more so than it would in most other schools.” In addition to the fund-raising for the Overbrook team, Elam said, five local law school students also will be awarded scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $2,500 at the Barristers’ Association Annual Awards and Scholarship Dinner. The black-tie dinner will be held at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Westin Hotel in Center City and will feature live jazz and a silent auction sponsored by the October Gallery. Savage said that when she and other members of the Barristers’ Association heard about the team, they decided to provide assistance. Whoever their detractors, the members of the Overbrook mock trial team have a host of supporters in high places. “Every year we are proud of all of our mock trial winners,” said PBA President-elect Michael Reed, who will become the first African-American head of that association next week. “Race has nothing to do with this. It is a coincidence that, in the 50th anniversary year of Brown [v. Board of Education], we would have a predominantly minority team from a predominantly minority school in a predominantly minority school system achieve this accomplishment.”
Tickets are still available for the scholarship dinner. Tickets for students are $95; for those employed in public interest or government, $105; for all other individuals, $125. A table for 10 is $1,250, while a half table costs $625. Those interested in obtaining tickets or donating should contact Mark Anderson of Miller Alfano & Raspanti at 215-972-6400.

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