Into the world of Mock Trial
Mock Trial offers an insightful look into a real trial, and also gives students an unusual opportunity to hone.…. acting skills, believe it or not. Stevenson junior Romi Fernández Riviello particularly likes this element of Mock Trial: “I think I’ve always, from freshman year to sophomore year, been really intrigued by Mock Trial, ‘cause a lot of TV shows for lawyer-like stuff have always been my favorite ones.” Students of all levels can participate in Mock Trial; roles range in difficulty from an attorney to a witness. Though even the “easier” roles still require a participant to memorize and eventually improvise answers to grueling questions. But Mock Trial competitions aren’t just fun little practices; the competitions take place just like a real trial, with an actual judge moderating as well as 3 scorers who are real-life attorneys.
Like Fernández, many participants seemed to have been fascinated by the law-themed entertainment that they have seen on TV. Though initially often captivated by the theatrics of the courtroom, Mock Triallers go on to learn more about the judicial system, becoming quite expert in the way the US trial system works. Mock Trial veteran Eliana Heiser explains her reason for joining mock trial as a way to ignite a previous passion: “Sometimes there are opportunities to have a little bit of drama in there, and that’s kind of what drew me to it in the first place — because I am part of the acting community at Stevenson. So it’s an interesting opportunity to deploy acting in a really unique improvisational setting.”
Participating in Mock Trial has also influenced many members’ plans for the future. Stevenson junior Clea Caddell discloses, “Prior to mock trial, I was dead set on being anything but a lawyer, but mock trial has definitely changed my mind. After experiencing the courtroom, law school is high on my list for future options!”
Mock Trial teams spend several months since the beginning of the school year preparing for the final competitions in February. This takes a team effort; whole teams prepare, because a case theory relies on multiple pieces of evidence and testimonies.
To prepare for the trial, teams are given a case packet which is the basis of the trial. This case packet debriefs the entire case including the facts the case depends on such as witness statements and pieces of evidence.
A witness is a key role that can sway the judge’s opinion of the case. There are witnesses for both counsels of the case, defense and prosecution. A witness completely memorizes their witness statement — a written account of what a witness has seen, experienced, and their overall part in the case — and fully embodies their assigned character. Witnesses have to become their character; they must answer all questions in both their direct and cross-examination using this information. A character must present this information in a composed and credible way when being questioned, no matter how incriminating the evidence might be. Heiser reveals, “I’ve been on trial for murder twice! Which puts you in sort of a unique situation, you're definitely portraying a character, you’re not just going up there to be you.”
Stevenson freshman Nora Wilcox reveals the most challenging part of playing a witness, “I would say the hardest part of being a witness is the cross-examination. This is when the prosecution attorney [opposing attorney] asks you a bunch of questions to find a discrepancy in what you are saying in order to incriminate the person you are defending.” Being a witness is a difficult balance of owning your character and their actions, while also trying to help your side of the case. A wide variety of witnesses take part: the defendant who serves as the accused during the trial, first-hand witnesses of the crime or the time leading up to the main event, expert witnesses who give their professional opinion on the incident at hand.
There are two types of attorneys in Mock Trial: pre-trial and regular. Attorneys are assigned to either the defense or the prosecution (sometimes both depending on the school’s team size). Pre-trial attorneys take the stage at the very beginning of the trial, pre-trial attorney Fernández Riviello explains, “There is some sort of evidence you’re trying to either get in, or get excluded from the trial.” So as a pre-trial attorney, Fernández Riviello’s job is to present a strong argument to persuade the judge to either exclude or allow a piece of information, depending on whether she is a prosecution or defense attorney.
To prepare for this challenging task, a pre-trial attorney uses the case packet, or the Mock Trial bible. In addition to creating a statement explaining why a piece of evidence should or should not be allowed into the trial, a pre-trial attorney also has to support their claim by referencing multiple trials, this involves memorizing these provided trials. Fernández Riviello reveals, “So you have to say how your same situation compares or differentiates from cases depending on what their reasoning says and their verdict.” These pre-trial statements are not just speeches either, the judge is allowed to interject and ask questions that can easily lead to confusion. Fernández Riviello confesses, “I think the hardest part is knowing your argument, but knowing that it can lead anywhere. Because you have the judge interrupting you and asking questions, so you really have to prepare for any types of questions. There’s like a lot of interruptions that’s going on.” She continues, “It’s hard to go back to what you were trying to say. Also if the judge asks something that you were going to say in your argument later on, kind of knowing that you already answered that part and trying to rearrange your thoughts.” Depending on the pre-trial verdict, regular attorneys on both sides have to quickly revise their opening and closing statements, and maybe even witness exams.
Regular attorneys are responsible for knowing the case inside-out. Each attorney is assigned a small group of witnesses on their same side (and from their school) that they will be carrying out the direct examination for. To prepare for this, the attorneys and witnesses create a script of questions and answers to reveal all that witness’ information that was provided in the case packet. This task can be challenging, especially for an important witness, because the attorney has to decide whether or not to put all the evidence out on the table, no matter the severity of the information. This can lead to the other side bringing out the evidence in a great way, making your side look bad; but bringing out the evidence straight away could also make the witness look untrustworthy.
Then they spend time memorizing the script so that it becomes second nature to them, and they are both able to fully incorporate their character’s persona into their responses. An attorney is also in charge of creating opening and closing statements. An opening statement is said right after pre-trial, it introduces the case theory or the theme behind the case. The opening statement is usually a run-down of the case and the other sides’ witnesses and the gist of what they are going to say, then an explanation of why these witnesses are not credible or this information is not stable enough to hold up the verdict. Then after going through the entirety of the case, it is time for closing arguments. Closing arguments are conceivably the most difficult piece of an attorney’s undertaking. Caddell delineates, “The closing statement summarizes the trial and links pieces of evidence together so the judge and jury can clearly understand the significance of each piece of evidence.” This final report encompasses the total case and every bit of important evidence. Then finally trying to invalidate the other side’s argument, and making your argument look more reliable.
The final Mock Trial competition is identical to the procedures of a real trial. The trial begins with members from each team introducing themselves and who they are portraying. Then the pre-trial attorneys start their arguments. There are two pre-trial attorneys, one prosecution and one defense (each from opposing schools). They take time to lay out the reasons why the evidence should either be included or excluded in the rest of the trial, as well as answering follow-up questions from the judge. Once they have both finished their arguments, they each get a rebuttal period to respond to the other attorney’s argument. Then the prosecution witnesses are integrated by both the prosecution and the defense, followed by the defense witnesses. Finally the closing statements are presented, accompanied with rebuttal time. Finally, the ruling of the case is released. But the actual winner of the case is not released until later. Winning the competition is based on the number of points each team earns. Points are determined by all aspects of the case, from the way a witness presents themself to the ways the attorney asks questions. Clea Caddell elaborates, “Each section is scored and factored into our final point total. The most minor witness gets just as many points as the defendant!”