PUT ME IN, COACH!
THE REWARDS OF GUIDING A MOCK TRIAL TEAM
By Jennifer A. Cundiff, Esq.
NIEKAMP, WEISENSELL, MUTERSBAUGH, & MASTRANTONIO, LLP
Each year, high school students across the state prepare their opening statements, learn the art of cross-examination, and master witness statements for the Ohio Mock Trial Competition. Through the Ohio Center for Law-Related Education, mock trial has become an important part of many students’ high school experience. The Ohio Mock Trial Competition helps students understand the legal system and encourages the development of analytical thinking and communication skills.
As a proud graduate of Norton High School and a prior member of the University of Akron School of Law’s Mock Trial Team, I was eager to become involved in their mock trial program as a legal advisor. Norton’s program is small – it is only in its second consecutive year of existence, but the students are excited to take part in the process. Mr. Jason Bryan, the faculty advisor, has been critical in preparing the witnesses for trial, plus he brings years of experience as the faculty advisor for the Norton Mock Trial program that existed in the early 2000s. Finally, the time and energy required to be a legal advisor would not be possible without Angelina Gingo who is co-advising Norton’s team this year.
This year’s case, State of Harmony v. Riley Green, brings current events into the mock courtroom. Similar to the Tamir Rice case, this case involves the shooting of a young teenager believed by an officer to be a dangerous threat, but who was actually carrying a toy weapon. While the general facts are similar, the specifics are very different. Mock trial purposely writes the material so that both sides are equally likely to prevail at trial.
As a result of the shooting, Officer Green is charged with felonious assault. During the case, Officer Green raises an affirmative defense that his actions were justified because they were reasonable under the fourth amendment. Prior to trial in the State of Harmony, a defendant who has alleged an affirmative must prove that defense by a preponderance of the evidence. Prior to trial, the issues are bifurcated so that the students present only the information relating to the affirmative defense. If the court finds his actions justified, then the criminal matter is dismissed. If the court finds his actions are not justified, then the case proceeds to trial on the criminal charges. The students are instructed to consider only the affirmative defenses and not consider the underlying criminal charge of felonious assault. As a result, unlike a typical criminal trial, the defendant presents arguments and witnesses first, followed by the prosecution.
The students are provided with case materials that include six witness statements, case law, pretrial briefs outlining each party’s positions, and simplified rules of evidence. The students write their own material, crafting first a theory of the case and then drafting their specific parts. In addition, the students must learn the legal basics including understanding how to admit evidence, practicing the using and responding to objections, and learning the legalese associated with effectively navigating a courtroom. The students are limited to the information in the case materials, but those materials include 150 pages of information. Every team’s students work diligently to prepare their respective teams for competition.
At first, the students find the legal system and preparation overwhelming. However, once they begin to prepare and start practicing the material they have worked so hard to write, they often surprise themselves. Also, the students enjoy cases that are in some ways similar to current events. It helps students understand that you can’t believe everything you hear in the media and that the specifics of the legal system are much more involved than they appear on television.
Overall, involvement with the Ohio Mock Trial Competition is a rewarding experience. Last year was my first year as a legal advisor, and I was amazed at how proficient the students were at the competition. Most teams have the advantage because their students have been involved in mock trial for multiple years, compounding their understanding of how the legal system works. Despite it being our first year in the courtroom, the Norton students put up a good showing against two seasoned teams that moved on from the district competition to regionals. When you see the students succeed, it makes all the time and energy associated with being a legal advisor worth the effort.
Jennifer Cundiff is an Associate Attorney at Niekamp, Weisensell, Mutersbaugh & Mastrantonio, LLP.