The "Warren-Warren" team from Warren High School won the mock trial competition in Washington County Common Pleas Court Friday, but it was a Belpre sophomore who made history by being the first blind student in the state of Ohio to participate in the 28-year-old contest.
"I've always been interested in debate, law and the legal process," said 15-year-old Courtney Hellein, who has been blind since birth.
Hellein portrayed defendant Dr. Dana Brody for the competition in which students take on the roles of lawyers and witnesses, arguing a hypothetical case before a panel that included local attorneys Ray Dugger and Dennis Sipe, as well as Common Pleas Judge Ed Lane.
SAM SHAWVER The Marietta Times
Belpre High School sophomore Courtney Hellein, right, reads some of the Braille text she presented during a mock trial competition Friday. At left is her assistant, Susan Nickolson.
"I chose the doctor role for myself," Hellein said. "I just thought it would be something I would like to do."
Belpre mock trial adviser Ken Cox said she played it well.
"But we had to argue both sides of the case, so it took a lot of practice," he said. "And the rest of the team was great - they were more than willing to work together on this. And the Warren team (who competed with Belpre) was very acceptive of the situation."
Hellein's assistant, Susan Nickolson, said Courtney was treated like any other student participating in the mock trial, except her information booklet from the Ohio Center for Law-Related Education, statewide sponsor of the competition, had to be translated into Braille.
"I use a device called an embosser to translate the booklet into Braille. It took up five volumes," Nickoson said.
"My witness statement alone was 12 pages in Braille," Hellein said. "But if it's something you enjoy doing, you don't really mind the extra work. And Mr. Cox has helped me a lot."
Cox said he wasn't quite sure what to do when Hellein showed up at a meeting early in the school year for those who wanted to participate in the mock trial competition.
"She wanted to be on the team, so I called the Ohio Center for Law-Related Education in Columbus and asked what I needed to do," Cox said. "But they said a blind student had never asked to be on a team in all 28 years of the competition."
Hellein would be Ohio's first blind student to take part in the mock trial contest.
"They sent us a computer disc formatted so that it could be translated into Braille," Cox said. "It was time-consuming and a lot of work for her, but we're very proud that she's on our team."
Hellein said she's looking forward to being part of the mock trial team again next year.
"People ask if I sometimes feel bitter because I'm blind," she said. "But I really don't feel bitter, because I know I'm here for a purpose."
Part of that purpose may be to open competitions like mock trials to others who face similar challenges.
Hellein said after high school she would like to attend The Ohio State University where there are programs designed to accommodate blind students.
Local attorney Ray Smith is among five area counselors who donate time to help coach the mock trial teams from Warren, Belpre and Fort Frye high schools.
"We have students now in law school who participated in mock trial competition in the past," he said.
Smith coached the Warren-Warren team that won Friday's contest.
"They now go to the regionals that will probably be held in Portsmouth," Smith said.
Winners of regional contests move on to Columbus for the state competition, and the state winner competes in a national mock trial event in Arizona in May.
Marietta attorney John Halliday is coordinator for this year's mock trial competition.
"I have to take my hat off to these professional attorneys who give of their time to help coach these students," he said. "And I'm extremely proud of our mock trial teams from Washington County."
Lane said he's always impressed by the team members.
"What I get out of this is seeing young people that are dressed nice, clean and healthy, who have a bright future ahead. It's exciting to see that," he said. "And I think the competition is becoming better because the attorneys coaching have stayed with it and continued to work on improving the teams every year."
More than 3,500 students from 350 teams and 150 schools across the state are participating in the Ohio competition, which is the second-largest high school mock trial program in the nation.