By Alicia Constant
Patrick Henry College
Members of PHC's Mock Trial Team
Lee Allen and Andy Allen were diving to explore a shipwreck in the Atlantic Ocean when something went terribly wrong. On July 3, 2012, Lee failed to surface and died during the dive. Now, Andy is suing the diving company for Lee’s wrongful death.
From this case problem, students on PHC’s mock trial team simulated courtroom proceedings, from opening statements and attorney arguments to witness testimonies and cross-examination. Six PHC teams qualified to the opening rounds of American Mock Trial Association (AMTA) nationals, and this year marked the first time a PHC team qualified for the Championship Tournament.
“People are starting to say, ‘Wow,’” said Dr. Frank Guliuzza, who coaches the team. “The team is definitely earning respect.”
While moot court focuses on arguing appellate law issues in front of a mock Supreme Court bench, mock trial simulates a 3-hour jury trial where the facts of the case must be decided. The team role-plays as either prosecution or defense (or plaintiff or defendant, in civil cases). The attorneys give opening statements, call 3 witnesses, and build a case based on evidence. The witnesses are cross-examined, and then the attorneys each give closing arguments.
Guliuzza said that for pre-law students, “there isn’t a better activity”: “I have never had a mock trial student who wanted to go to law school and didn’t get admitted.”
“Mock trial was the one activity I was definitely not going to do,” said senior Elizabeth Ertle, an attorney for PHC’s highest placing team last year. “I wanted to go to law school, and I thought I wanted to focus on Constitutional law.” However, her wing mates convinced her to try it, and after attending a meeting, she was sold. “Mock trial changed my mind and now I want to go into criminal law.”
Mock trial is arguably the most difficult forensics competition in the nation. While there are a number of different leagues for debate and moot court, mock trial has only one main college-level league: the American Mock Trial Association (AMTA). The AMTA is regarded as one of the largest forensics organizations in the country, with nearly 700 teams attempting to qualify for 48 National Championship Tournament spots. Even though the school has only been competing since 2009, PHC’s teams rank in the top 7 percent of the league.
Not everyone on the team has to be a lawyer. During the rounds, attorneys call witnesses, who must act in character as they are cross-examined.
“I’m always looking at the people in Eden Troupe to see who would be good for mock trial,” Guliuzza said. “But, I don’t want the best actors, I want the smartest actors. You have to be able to answer questions realistically and find ways to get your information in.”
The outcome of the case does not depend on who wins or loses; it depends on how well all the members on the team work together to simulate an actual courtroom environment.
“Everyone on the team is part of the bigger picture,” Ertle said. “In moot court, you do a lot of preparation on your own. In mock trial, everyone has to adjust to the team and find where they fit.”
As a result, team members have to spend more time preparing and practicing together to make sure all their pieces fit cohesively. Ertle and one of her witnesses went through eight different drafts of one testimony in the three days before the tournament. Rounds can be grueling, usually lasting for three hours with nothing to eat or drink except water. While other people are talking, team members have to sit still and look attentive, even if they’ve stayed up late prepping the night before.
“Working with a team of this many people really changed my perspective,” Ertle said. “I’ve done British Parlimentary Debate, did Team Policy and Lincoln Douglas debate in high school, and at most you’re only working with one other person. With mock trial, if anybody fails, you lose the round.”
However, she said that being on a team is also extremely rewarding: “You get to see all the pieces fit together…It’s more fun when you do well because you have more people to celebrate with.”
Because moot court and mock trial seasons overlap, and because many students choose to do both, PHC cannot compete at as many invitational “practice” tournaments as some schools who solely do mock trial. While PHC attends a few invitational tournaments, the school also holds an in-house intermural tournament in which around 40 PHC students participated. Guliuzza and Ertle are looking forward to PHC’s Mock Trial Teen Camp this summer, and both of them have high hopes for next year.
“We want to keep building on what we’ve done—in other words, win the national championship,” Guliuzza said.