Eastern Michigan University
by Leah Shutes
Nino Monea’s first Mock Trial went better than he expected. Apart from not rising promptly when the judge entered, and a (temporary) feeling of nervousness, his parts in the Trial went well and he walked away with a score of top witness in the round. Not bad for a rookie.
“It’s one thing to practice in front of a mirror, but in the courtroom I felt like a real attorney,” says Monea, a double-major in public law and government and in economics, and a member of one of EMU’s two Mock Trial teams.
Both teams—EMU Team 386 and EMU Team 387—are wildly successful. In fact, EMU Team 386 won the regional competition in February and has advanced to the Opening Round Championship Series, scheduled for late March at Miami University. Team member John Adams won an Outstanding Witness Award.
EMU’s Mock Trial team, part of the American Mock Trial Association, has participated in AMTA events for a decade. The events involve realistic but fictional cases that alternate between civil and criminal. The cases are set in a fictional state with its own laws, procedures for court, and court conduct rules.
The teams get one case each year. Generally, they have between two weeks and a month to prepare for competition. They work from case packets that include pretrial information, judicial orders, statutes and applicable case law.
The packets also include evidence and affidavits. It’s up to the team to do their own research in order to be prepared for the trial. Barry Pyle, political science professor and Mock Trial coach, works with the students to hone their public speaking skills and help them learn to use evidence to their advantage. The team usually competes seven to nine weekends per year around the Midwest.
Teams must come prepared. According to Kaitlyn Dugas, a political science major and member of Team 387, the teams don’t know beforehand whether they’ll be arguing the case for the plaintiff or the defendant.
The trial, usually held in a real courtroom, begins with opening arguments from the plaintiff and defense attorneys. Each side summarizes its argument and attempts immediately to discredit the other side.
“It’s really exciting when there are a lot of good objections to what the attorneys are saying, and when there are convincing witnesses,” says Dugas, who hopes to go on to law school at New York University or Georgetown.
The plaintiff calls three witnesses and examines them. The witnesses are cross-examined by the defense with a strategically worded line of questioning designed to make the jury, judges or other witnesses second-guess the testimony.
“As an attorney, you have to note weak spots and figure out what you can object to,” Monea says. “You don’t give the witness a lot of time to talk.”
The witnesses must be knowledge-able about their pretended field of expertise, and be well-read on all the evidence. The roles also require acting skills and quick thinking. Students on the team generally like playing witnesses.
“You can give the witness some character, dress up. The witness is really the star of the show,” says Monea.
Judges score the teams based on the performance of the attorneys and the witnesses. The scores reflect the presentation of the facts and students’ knowledge of the legal and procedural aspects of the case. Witnesses are scored on their performance under direct and cross-examination.
Mock trials and actual court cases are very different from what’s portrayed in the media. Arguably, however, they’re just as exciting.
“You learn rules of evidence, and how the courts work,” Monea says. “You acquire skills like public speaking and improvisation. You learn a lot of things that aren’t on TV.”