Mock Trial Team Faces Tough Cases and Competition
By Caperton Gillett
The prosecutor stalks before the judge’s bench, his opening statement thrumming with a quiet intensity. His delivery full of gravity but lacking in melodrama, he presents the case at hand: a young woman accused of killing a friend in a drunk-driving incident. The defendant sits across the room next to her three attorneys, unexpectedly unruffled for a woman facing time in prison (and somewhat underdressed for a day in court).
Luckily, casual attire notwithstanding, the defendant’s freedom remains unthreatened, and her friend is safe and sound—and fictional. The entire setup, from faux judge to pretend witnesses, is a practice round—a “scrimmage”—for UAB’s mock trial team. In April 2012, the team put in a strong showing at the American Mock Trial Association (AMTA) national championships in Minnesota, earning Outstanding Trial Team Honorable Mention in the Hon. Edward Toussaint, Jr., Division and All-American honors for team members Valencia Jackson (witness category) and captain Grady Lowman (attorney category). (See a video of the team’s practice below and learn more about their performance at the national championship here.)
Story continues after video.
Body of Evidence
Mock trial is simply “addictive,” says team co-coach Joseph Dease, himself a UAB mock trial alumnus now in his final year at Cumberland School of Law. “Once you go to that first competition and understand why you’ve put in all the time and effort, you’re hooked.”
The drunk-driving case was provided by the AMTA and will be used by all competing teams throughout the year. Dease has a binder with the relevant materials: affidavits from witnesses and experts, receipts, and even, he says, “crime scene photos.” (Squad captains Grady Lowman, Brian Price, and Kimberly Jeter jump in simultaneously to object: Until the prosecutors have proven that a crime actually has been committed, the photos are merely “incident photos.”)
While the mock trial season starts in the fall, students can join the team in either fall or spring by registering for JS 434, a course open to all undergraduates. (This year’s team is top-loaded with criminal justice students but also includes theatre, physics, psychology, and biology majors.) The fall semester is full of research, preparation, practice, and invitational tournaments. Regional competition begins in the spring, leading up to April’s national championships—and only once in its 16-year history has UAB’s team not progressed beyond regionals. It brought home a national title in 2006.
UAB’s three squads work as self-contained units to prepare cases for the prosecution and for the defense. They don’t know which side they’ll be arguing until each competition begins, and judging is based not on the trial’s outcome but on team performance. Individuals can win outstanding attorney and witness awards. Lowman describes mock trial as a game of “devil’s advocate.” “Your viewpoints kind of end up in limbo,” he says. “You see the strengths and weaknesses in each side of the case and learn to present them wholeheartedly no matter which side you’re representing. And then you leave everything in the hands of the judges.”
UAB’s mock trial program was launched in 1995 by John Grimes, a local attorney and director of the UAB pre-law program, and Jim Phillips, who is currently an assistant United States attorney. Both are honored on a plaque in the Burr & Forman Mock Trial Courtroom, a fully equipped (if miniaturized) courtroom in UAB’s University Boulevard Office Building with all the technology, multimedia capability, and hand-carved wood to make a mock trial feel like the real thing. The goal of the team, Dease says, is to “give students a basis for deciding whether or not law school is right for them. It’s not to create more attorneys.”
"We don’t need the competition,” jokes mock trial co-coach Nathan Mays, who joined the team as a UAB student in 2005. While the program didn’t seem like a big deal at first, he says, “It helped launch my legal career.” His UAB mock trial success led to a place on Cumberland’s team, which was influential in helping him land his current job: assistant district attorney for the 29th circuit. “I didn’t have a clue what the law really entailed until I joined the UAB team,” Mays says.
“It teaches a lot of skills that are helpful no matter what you do in life: public speaking, thinking on your feet, and being comfortable in front of strangers,” Dease says.
“Every week, I learn something new,” adds Jeter, a senior in her second year of mock trial and head of the team’s gold squad. “The coaches tell us that we’re ahead of the game before we even get to law school, and we’ll know more than the average law student.”
Law & Error
Students sometimes have unrealistic expectations about the legal process, Mays says, especially “when they go to law school or court for the first time and think, ‘This is nothing like Boston Legal.’ The advantage with mock trial is that they get to see how an American courtroom really works and get judged by lawyers and judges who know how real trials play out.”
“It teaches how much behind-the-scenes work there is,” Dease says. “Most attorneys don’t end up in court at all, because they do transactional work or something else. And even the attorneys in court spend far more of their time preparing.”
That preparation is reflected in the time investment required for mock trial success, and it results in a heavy attrition rate early and a strong sense of commitment later on, Dease says. While students can take the mock trial course twice for credit, “we have students who spend just as much time as everyone else without taking it for credit,” Dease says. “They’re hooked. And it’s fantastic to put on an application for law school.”
Lowman, a senior psychology major and captain of UAB’s green squad, is one of these journeymen. “So many people have put so much into this program that when you reap the benefits, you feel the need to return them,” he says. “I could just as easily have left the program this year, but after all that’s been done to give me a four-year experience, I feel like everyone else should have the same opportunity. We stay involved.”
“For me, a big part of it is the competitive edge,” says Price, a junior criminal justice major and captain of the white squad. “I got my first real taste last year in one of our first competitions—I got up and did terribly. I’ve always been a competitive person, and after that moment, I realized I never want to be in that situation again, to lose like that. We have to go on from that, train hard, and then turn around to win a competition.”
Beyond trophies, students find that mock trial success can lead to scholarship money, face time with some of the legal field’s big names and big brains, and trips around the country for competition. And, Jeter says, the extended togetherness and cooperative hard work can create a sense of family. “I’ve known these people for a year now. I hang out with them all the time—not just for mock trial.”
If there’s a downside to mock trial’s extensive study and full immersion in the legal mindset, it’s that “you tend to overanalyze everything and relate it back to whether or not it would actually pass in the real world,” Lowman says.
“You find yourself screaming objections at the TV,” Mays adds.