MANATEE -- The gavel smashes down on the dark mahogany table to the sound of: "Objection, your Honor! The prosecution's claim is completely unfounded."
Twelve pairs of eyes turn in intrigue. Not a sound is heard in the courtroom.
Confidently, the defense attorney pushes back the chair and stands to deliver a rebuttal.
These are the sights and sounds of the Saint Stephen's Episcopal School's mock trial team, often using the facilities at the Manatee County Courthouse.
This year, the team's hours of hard work and dedication paid off: many awards speak to this. The team placed in the top 10 at the state level 22 times, won Best Attorney 14 times and received the Professionalism Award twice.
Mock trial is an after-school club taught by U.S. history teacher Patricia Murphy, assisted by attorney Jim Delgado of the Manatee law firm Kallins, Little & Delgado. She is also supported by Maite Clarke from the District Attorney's Office.
When senior Sabel Duncan, mock trial team captain, joined the team as a sophomore, she knew she was joining a highly successful team with an ultra-competitive coach.
"I'd heard stories of what regionals, states and national competitions were like and I worked my hardest to be at that level," she said. "When I actually saw opposing teams in action in the courtroom, that's when my motivation ramped up. I wanted to be at that level and even higher."
Murphy returned the kudos to her entire team.
"Self-confidence, maturity, and strength of character sum up this year's mock trial team," said Murphy. "These qualities are manifested by the arduous process of preparing for competition."
Diane Neeves, a parent of mock trial team member Carson Neeves, said she was amazed by how composed the team is while presenting a case.
"They are given a case to study and they have to represent both sides of the case," she said. "When the opposing counsel objects, they have to defend the objection, or rephrase the question to get what they need from the witness to prove their argument."
Neeves added: "Carson was part of something special, something he had not been exposed to previously, nor would he have been if not for Saint Stephen's or the passion of Ms. Murphy and his mock trial teammates. He not only loved it but it will be one of his most impactful high school experiences."
Delgado said he tries to get the students to go from "acting like attorneys to being attorneys."
His role depends on the students.
"If a student is too aggressive, my goal is to make them less aggressive and more in control," he said. "If they are too mild-mannered, my goal is push them to be more aggressive."
Murphy said mock trial requires students "to learn to construct opening statements, powerful cross examinations and crushing closing arguments."
These qualities allow student to be "agile and quick in remembering facts and laws; ultimately, the students build self-confidence and character," Delgado added.
In speaking about the program, Head of School Dr. Jan Pullen said: "You get learning based on personal interests and experience in teamwork to (reach a desired result), while also doing something that represents your school."
Upper School Director Andrew Forrester said: "Mock trial is an excellent opportunity for students to gain experience in the legal field."
To be able to speak confidently during a trial and understand the case from all angles requires a great amount of work and dedication. It's transformative.
"It's amazing to watch a student go from having very little knowledge about courtroom rules of evidence and procedures to hearing them confidently present their side of a case in front of a jury," said Murphy.
Mock trial members become a team, according to Delgado.
"They listen, help, critique and take notes on each other. Individually, they build confidence since they're used to going up in front of people and public speaking," Delgado said.
Forrester explained: "Students learn all about the correct procedures of a legal setting in a court of law and a whole new vocabulary of legal terminology. Since they present all of this orally, they learn excellent presentation skills: how to move, react, get your point across, and to be firm but not aggressive,"
Pullen said the "beauty of Saint Stephen's is that we can't have everything here, but we try to have enough variety of extracurricular activities to entice different interests of our students."
Mock trial specifically exposes students to the legal field and sparks an interest to pursue related studies in college.
Duncan said: "Each and every teammate that I've had in my three years of mock trial has possessed unique characteristics that no one but they alone have created," she said. "My goal as captain has been to set the tone for a very conducive environment in which every teammate can better themselves as a team member. That type of environment is bound to yield success."
Yet it is important to remember the success of the mock trial team begins with instructor Murphy, who recently received the first Ed Lange Award during the States awards ceremony.
"Not only are we so proud of what Ms. Murphy does at Saint Stephen's but we are so proud that others have recognized her in the state for her years and years of dedication," Pullen said. "It's been her energy, dedication, and commitment in bringing this wonderful activity to our students. The hours and hours she spends working with the kids is so admired."