Enjoying the Right to a Speedy and Public Mock Trial

By David W. ’18

On a crisp February morning, seven sharply dressed men and women flowed into the Lancaster County courthouse, through the security checkpoint and up to the seventh floor, toting the full complement of lawyerly accessories: briefcases, legal pads, and loose papers, pens and folders.

They walked briskly down an empty hallway toward Courtroom 19, where a bailiff ushered them through the two large wooden doors. They took a seat at one of the two counsel tables and arranged their case materials while they waited for the judge and jury to arrive.

The seven looked the part and acted the part, and they cut an impressive professional figure. Except for the fact that none of them were lawyers.

The dapper group consisted of six LCDS students and one teacher, and made up half of the school’s Mock Trial team. More likely than not, we looked less important and impressive than described. Still, narrative license aside, we walked with confidence.

“Mock Trial is performative,” said Jack K. ’19, an attorney for the LCDS Mock Trial team. “You need to look confident. The other team, the judge and the jury will think you know what you’re doing.”

Mock Trial is certainly a performance, and the preparation required to put on a good show is demanding. The class is a single-trimester elective course that begins in November. Students receive case materials shortly before Thanksgiving; by the end of the month, they have been assigned to either the Plaintiff (in a civil case), the Prosecution (in a criminal case), or the Defense, and they begin preparing for a trial.

Come early February, students compete against another team in front of a real judge and jury. They call witnesses, they make objections — they are in control. LCDS sends two groups to the courthouse on two days every year. This year, the Plaintiff team went first on February 13 and the Defense team followed a week later.

“It’s an incredible course. At the end of the day, we have to take a giant packet of course materials and condense them into a presentable, believable case that the jury can get behind,” said David D.T. ’19, a veteran of Mock Trial.

The case materials include jury instructions, a memorandum and opinion, witness affidavits, and around a dozen exhibits. The LCDS Mock Trial team must craft a legal argument around these papers. Each year, the Pennsylvania Bar Association provides the material for a civil case, giving three witness affidavits to both the Plaintiff and the Defense. On each side, three students play the role of witnesses and three others play the attorneys.

The class appeals to a diverse set of students with a variety of interests. Some take the class out of a passion for debate; others as a way of pursuing theater beyond the stage. Many share an interest in the law, and Mock Trial provides an excellent opportunity for students to explore both legal research and litigation.

However, the class is much more than Practical Lawyering 101; much of the curriculum is deeply rooted in philosophy and history. Students must have a basic understanding of common law in order to grasp more complex topics in the legal code.

To prepare for the final show, students comb through the affidavits and exhibits to gather evidence and draft questions for direct examination (in which an attorney asks questions of a friendly witness) and cross examination (in which an attorney demands answers from a hostile witness).

They read the Mock Trial Rules of Competition as well as the Rules of Evidence, which are taken nearly verbatim from federal evidentiary code. They research objections and prepare to defend their evidence at trial. The case is fiction, a contrivance of the PA Bar Association, but the process is very much real.

At trial, one attorney from each team makes an opening statement, followed by the Plaintiff beginning their case-in-chief. They call witnesses and ask direct questions. After direct, the Defense begins the cross-examination, using sharp logic and biting language to discredit the witness and undermine his or her testimony.

While a direct examination is more narrative, on cross-examination, the witness and the attorney fight for control. The lawyer backs the witness into a corner; the witness takes the question, spins it, and turns it back on the attorney. So it goes.

Throughout the entire process, opposing teams object to questions, evidence and procedure. The judge sustains or overrules every objection, and all the while the jury ranks the performances of witnesses and attorneys.

After the closing arguments, which are largely improvised and argumentative, the jury deliberates, tallies up the points, and announces a winner.

This year, LCDS Mock Trial posted its best performance in its decade-long history. After years of frustrations and learning experiences, the team has found its strength. “In past years, we spent a long time focusing on the substance of our argument. We’re still doing that, but this year, we rehearsed decorum and procedure. I think that’s what got us points with the jury,” said Matt Kelly, a local attorney who has run the Mock Trial program at LCDS since its inception.

“There’s a Mock Trial Council, complete with a Board of Directors and member students, that manages much of the class. I teach and advise, but the students have a lot of control over this operation.”

The competition culminates in a statewide championship trial in Harrisburg, with the winner advancing to national competition. Next year, David D.T. ’19 predicts, “We’re taking it to nationals. That’ll be our year.”