The spirit of competition and close-knit camaraderie are driving Stevenson’s Mock Trial Team to new heights.
MARCH 8, 2019: “TEAM 1441 DRAWS TEAM 1700.”
The announcement didn’t mean much to most of the teams in the room—just another unequal pairing of Mock Trial teams at a major tournament. A university that regularly competed at the national level would play an unknown team at their first major competition. It was expected to be an easy pass for Team 1700 and bad luck for Team 1441.
The Opening Round Championship Series (ORCS) of the American Mock Trial Association (AMTA) competition is the second of three levels of competition: Regionals, ORCS, and Nationals. Any team can attend Regionals, but only the top teams from each region qualify for ORCS, and the top finishers there go on to Nationals. At ORCS, each team is randomly paired during the draw at the start of competition and then competes in four trials. The subsequent draws are determined, in part, by performance in the first round. As the pairings are announced, hundreds of competitors from dozens of universities wait to learn which team they will play. The teams have studied each other, know each other’s rankings, and have best-case and worst-case scenarios in mind—especially for that pivotal first pairing.
Once pairings are announced, the team captains meet and learn which witnesses will be chosen and which evidence will be used. Then, teams have 30 minutes to hone their strategy and prepare for competition. The competition comprises the literal “mock trial,” which includes opening statements, direct and cross-examination of three witnesses for the prosecution/plaintiff and three witnesses for the defense, and closing statements. Each trial lasts three hours. One minute longer and everyone is disqualified. Nobody wants that.
Some teams might have been disheartened to face such a competitive team in the opening round of their first ORCS appearance. They might have become flustered, doubted themselves, or performed poorly.
Team 1441 did none of those things. Team 1441 won. They received a higher score from both presiding judges, and while they didn’t make it to Nationals (this year!), they received an Honorable Mention for the “Spirit of AMTA Award,” which is voted on by the participating teams and recognizes the team that exhibits outstanding professionalism, civility, decorum, and character. In addition, junior Norman Greenwell received one of nine Outstanding Witness awards. Not bad for a team that was perceived as easy to beat.
Who was Team 1441? Stevenson University.
MOCK TRIAL AT STEVENSON
Stevenson University’s Mock Trial program grew out of the Legal Studies program, which included a Mock Trial experience in its capstone course. Students were so excited about Mock Trial—and some had competition experience from high school—that they asked Melanie K. Snyder, Esq., Professor of Law, to start a team. For the first year, the team didn’t compete. Then in 2013, they embarked upon their first competition season. Snyder acknowledges that, in the initial years, she was “learning along with the students.”
Mock Trial is a unique competition with a very specific set of rules and protocols. For instance, witness testimony needs to match the affidavit exactly; actions require “permission to proceed”; participants must stand each time the judge enters the room (even if she or he has just stepped out briefly); and attorneys must request “permission to move about the well,” which refers to making use of the space between the judge and the attorneys.
As the team learned more, they got better, and student interest grew. Snyder held tryouts, and participation increased from one ten-member team to two teams, “A” and “B.” The addition of a second team allowed more students to participate and provided opportunities for students to join the Mock Trial program as freshmen and have several years to develop and hone their skills. The 2019 B team includes six freshmen, two of whom, Marriah Boyd and Eric Williams, won top awards this season. Although the A team travels to more competitions, both teams compete at Regionals, and the camaraderie between the teams is essential for the Mock Trial program’s success.
A partnership with the Mock Trial program at University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) emerged in 2016, and in 2016 and 2017, the two universities co-hosted the Charm City Invitational Tournament, bringing 16 teams from universities including Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Haverford, and American to Stevenson to compete.
The quality of the Charm City Invitational impressed officials from the American Mock Trial Association. When the Mid-Atlantic Regionals needed a new home, the choice was obvious. In 2018, Stevenson University and UMBC co-hosted the AMTA Regionals on Stevenson’s campus. The tournament was such a success that SU was offered the 2019 hosting slot and will be hosting again in 2020. Stevenson’s facilities—the jewel of which is the Francis X. Pugh Courtroom— supportive campus community, and hospitality have been consistently cited as reasons that coming to Stevenson’s tournament is a such a positive experience for participating teams.
Regionals typically draw about 28 teams, and recent competitors at Stevenson have included Columbia, Fordham, Wesleyan, Temple, Villanova, and Rutgers. Hosting AMTA Regionals helped Stevenson grow its reputation in the Mock Trial community, and in 2019 the team made it to the “big leagues” by qualifying for ORCS.
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
What takes a Mock Trial team from good to great? Practice and knowing the rules. During the competition season, the teams practice as a group at least twice per week and have individual or small-group practice sessions daily. First comes reading the case file: 157 pages of detail about events, witnesses, and evidence. This is the playbook for the trial.
“Anything and everything is fair game,” says Legal Studies major Norman Greenwell. “Paying attention to and learning the small details can often make the difference in winning a case.”
Stevenson’s team works together to analyze the case file and create their strategy. Dozens of combinations of witnesses can be produced, and myriad lines of inquiry and argument can be made. Team members must be prepared for anything.
The ability to read, analyze, listen, and act are at the core of a successful Mock Trial performance. And, it certainly is a performance. Timing, hand gestures, and use of the space are all important. “Everything you’re doing in the courtroom is purposeful,” says coach Miranda R. Baxendale, Adjunct Instructor of Law, and a former Mock Trial competitor for Johns Hopkins who also teaches math at Patterson Park Public Charter School.
The polish and poise of the attorneys and witnesses is often what makes the difference between a win and a loss. Memorizing arguments and lines of questioning are essential. In addition to strong communication and presentation skills, critical thinking, creativity, and analytical abilities are all in play through the Mock Trial experience.
Judging in Mock Trial has an element of subjectivity. Scores are not tallied until after the round is complete, so participants don’t know how they are doing until the round is over. Maintaining composure and projecting confidence during the trial are key, notes student Jaden Thornton, who won an Outstanding Attorney award the 2019 Regional tournament. “If you know the case inside and out—and know the rules—it builds confidence when you are arguing a point.”
THE HEART OF THE TEAM
The strong commitment and community that characterizes Stevenson’s Mock Trial program is clear after spending just a few minutes with any member of the team or with one of their coaches.
Snyder has taught Legal Studies at Stevenson since 2000, and Mock Trial has become her passion. Trainings, competitions, and, most important, the students themselves are close to Snyder’s heart, and the students know it. During the height of competition season, it is not unusual for her to be practicing with students via video chat in the evenings or on weekends. In 2017, she found a kindred spirit in Baxendale. With an established competition record, Baxendale is now the second coach of the Stevenson team.
All of the time, energy, and passion that the coaches pour into Mock Trial is returned to them tenfold. In a meeting with the team, words like “community” and “family” flow easily as the students discuss their experiences. Students come to Mock Trial from a range of academic and personal backgrounds, and this diversity is part of what makes Stevenson’s team so strong. “Working with a lot of different types of people and learning their strengths improves both the whole team and each team member,” said student Alexis Holloway.
“Students join Mock Trial expecting to build their legal experience,” adds Snyder. “That definitely happens, but when you ask our students to reflect on their experience, the biggest thing that jumps out is the sense of community they’ve established. They recognize that a team is only as strong as the weakest link, and they are here to support each other both in and out of the courtroom. The season starts very quickly, and students who might not have been friends, let alone know each other, suddenly become a family.”
REACHING THE NEXT LEVEL: NATIONALS
Stevenson University’s Mock Trial program is on the move. Qualifying for ORCS in 2019 helped the team make a big leap into the next level of competition. They will now have a national ranking and will be invited to compete more frequently and participate in bigger tournaments. These experiences will challenge the students and help the team improve. Competing in more tournaments will also help the team expand their reputation, and the coaches are confident that both Stevenson’s A and B teams will be going to ORCS before too long. The students and coaches are extremely grateful to their sponsors who are making this travel and participation possible, including the Murthy Law Firm, Mr. and Mrs. Randolph Brinton, and RBC Wealth Management, as well as additional gifts from Miles & Stockbridge P.C., DLA Piper LLP, and the many friends of the Mock Trial program.
The case file for the 2019-2020 competition season will drop on August 15, 2019, and Stevenson’s Mock Trial teams will not miss a beat. The students and their coaches will begin reading, researching, and planning, looking ahead to the first competition of a season that will hopefully see them competing at the national level. Regardless of any future wins—and losses sometimes—Stevenson’s Mock Trial team is creating bonds, lifetime career skills, and legacies that will endure long after the final closing argument is delivered.
“Our team doesn't settle,” says Snyder. “They consistently strive to improve and perform successfully at higher and higher levels. They take much more than a win-loss record from a tournament. They are using these experiences to help them refine their oral communication and analytical skills, and that makes them ready to compete at a national level or, one day, in a courtroom for clients.”
Cheryl A. Wilson, Ph.D., is Dean of Stevenson’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences and Professor of English. Her enthusiasm for the works of Jane Austen and 19th century British culture might only be surpassed by her growing love for Mock Trial.