Mock Trial Victory
Phillips Exeter has once again won the NH state championship; we are once again headed to the national championships. I cannot claim to be surprised–we were the favorites heading into this weekend’s state competition–but I am so pleased.
In December, we formed three teams for the state championship; an A team composed mainly of experienced seniors and uppers; a B team with some strong lowers and preps; and a C team, also of lowers and preps. The case, originally from Georgia, was a murder at sea; two men went out shrimp fishing, the boat went down, one of them, Sam, was picked from the sea, and the other, Jude, washed up on the beach, with stab wounds matching Sam’s knife. We assigned roles–who was going to be Sam, who was going to be the police detective–and we went to work.
I had intended to spend January and early February here in Exeter, working with all three teams. As it was, for family reasons, I was in California for much of January and early February. I only returned here to Exeter on February 10, less than a week ahead of the state championship, set for February 15 and 16. So nine tenths of the work on this case was done by the students on their own. They agreed on meeting times, not an easy process given how busy they are with classes, sports, and clubs. They arranged meeting rooms. They drafted their statements and questions and answers, and worked their way through revision after revision, and finally memorized.
On the Friday evening before the Saturday start, I met with the A team and we went through some of the case, listening to statements and a few of the question/answers. Saturday morning, on the bus at eight, short drive to our local Rockingham county court, into courtrooms for the first trial. I stayed with A team, thinking that the best use of my time was to watch them compete, give them notes on how to improve, so that they could do better Sunday. They were good but not great. At one point one of the witnesses, Alice, was telling the jury that they could see something in the exhibit she was discussing; but the jury could not see it because Rohan had not published a copy to the jury. At another point another witness, Holden, was trying to look both at the jury, to his left, and the judge, behind him to his right. He just looked restless and shifty.
We had a lunch break (thank you to my wife for bringing in Subway sandwiches) and then a second trial in the afternoon. Again, I stayed with A team, this time defending Sam Cunningham. We were good, better, in part because we have such great witnesses. Saisha played a feminist fisherman; when asked why she called herself “Al” she said “I know, it makes me sound like a guy, but what is gender, but an oppressive social construct?” Da’Rya played Sam, with great emotion on cross: “have you ever seen your childhood friend go overboard into the ocean?”
At about 5 that Saturday afternoon, the state coordinator announced some individual awards; I was pleased that some of the younger Exeter kids, Joanna and Holly and Rebecca and Jun, received awards. Kyle then announced the four semi-final teams: Phillips Exeter A and B teams, Bishop Guertin and Souhegan. Last year, Exeter’s “C team” made the final four, so there was a final six, but not this year; they were beaten Saturday by Souhegan.
I spent Saturday evening with the B team, hoping that both A and B team would win Sunday morning. We knew that both Exeter teams would be prosecution on Sunday morning, so B team and I focused on that side of the case, heard the opening, adjusted it a bit, heard each of the witnesses, crossed most of the witnesses. We especially focused on some of the objection issues: how to get bits of evidence IN that we wanted in and how to keep bits of evidence OUT that we wanted out.
Good mock trial cases have interesting evidentiary issues. In this case, for example, there was a transcript of the mayday call from Sam and Jude. On one level, the way to get the transcript in is easy; it is a business record, made by the radio operator in the course of her business of listening to calls. But on another level it is harder, for there is also the conversation between Sam and Jude. What allows that hearsay to get in? Sam is the party-opponent, an exception to hearsay, but what about Jude? We discussed several alternatives, why one approach (excited utterance) seemed better to me than others (dying declaration).
I was up early Sunday morning, sending a few last minute emails to kids with ideas, getting doughnuts at Dunkin Donuts and water at Walgreens. On Saturday afternoon it was snowing, and there was some concern about whether we would be able to compete Sunday, but the snow was not that deep, about two inches, and the sky was clear. There was a beautiful full moon, just going down, as I parked the car and shifted the food.
I met with B team, just before they started, but once again watched A team, in part because I wanted to be on the spot if there were any alleged rule violations. A team was up against Bishop Guertin, the traditional NH MT powerhouse, and BG was good, but not as good as A team. Our witnesses had character; when Holden introduced himself he said something like it was “a great morning to live free or die here in the great state of New Hampshire.” He then refused to give his name, saying he did not want to divulge it in open court. Our lawyers knew the rules, while the BG lawyers were saying things like “I feel like she ought to have to give more specifics.”
When we finished, and met with B team, they were apprehensive; they thought they might have lost their semi-final round. And indeed, a few minutes later, Kyle announced that Exeter and Souhegan would be the finalists; B team had indeed lost in the semi-final round. There were some long faces and even tears among the B team students, but I told them that they were only fourteen years old; that they would get better and better.
So: some lunch, more preparation, a few last minute adjustments to the defense case for the afternoon. And then, at about one pm, back into the courtroom again, for the final round. I could see, as the afternoon wore on, why Souhegan had done so well; they were very good, no note cards, solid arguments. I felt that my kids were a little better, but that was just a feeling; who knew? When the trial ended, there was a brief break while the judges conferred, and the B team kids were pressing me: did we win? I do not know, I said, and I meant it.
A few minutes later, Kyle announced that Souhegan had taken second in the state. We applauded, politely, and then applauded more happily when he said we had won the state championship. A few minutes of photos, then back out to the bus for the short, happy ride home. We now have a quiet period, until early April, when the national case is released, but we have some work to do in lining up the funds, making the travel reservations, etc.