Mock Trial Nationals

I have just returned from the national high school mock trial championship, held this year in Madison, Wisconsin.  It was an exciting, exhausting, and in the end somewhat disappointing weekend.

Most of us traveled Wednesday, arriving in Madison after nine that night.  The next morning, at nine, we had our first scrimmage, against a solid team from Jonesboro High in Georgia.  We have a team connection to Jonesboro High:  our state coordinator, the great Kyle Skinner, competed for Jonesboro when he was in high school.  Competed at the highest level, winning the national championship one year.  This year’s Georgia team was not that good, but they were good, with some interesting ideas.  For example, the first words of the Georgia defense opening were “Occam’s Razor.”  We had considered, briefly, using the very same phrase as our defense opening, but rejected it because we thought it too obscure, too erudite. 

In the afternoon, we scrimmaged against our friends from Washington state.  I say friends because I am friends with two of the coaches:  Andy McCarthy and Joe Genster. and some of the students are friends through facebook.  I had the pleasure and task of presiding over the scrimmage, meaning that every time one of the students objected, I had to listen to the arguments on both sides and announce my decision.  Was the question in fact improper, in which case the objection should be sustained?  Or was there an exception, so the question was proper, and the objection overruled?  Making fair and rapid rulings on these evidence questions is not easy.  By the end of the round I was as tired as the students.  We learned a lot watching and tussling with Washington; I only regret that the schedule did not allow us more social time with them.

The next morning the real competition started.  Mock trial high school nationals is in many ways like the NCAA basketball tournament but with more mystery.  One layer of mystery is provided by the team codes:  teams identify themselves to the judges by team codes rather than state or school names.  This coding is not very hard to crack, however, because the students see one another in the lobbies and at dinners, and indeed ask one another, before and after the round, “where are you from.”  So we knew, before we started that we were facing Indiana.

That was not good news.  Indiana is a traditional mock trial powerhouse:  an Indiana team has been in the top ten many times in recent years.  This was NOT the usual Indiana school, John Adams High School, it was another school, but presumably this school beat John Adams to get to nationals, so was even better.  Unlike the NCAA, the first round seeding for mock trial nationals is random.  If you face a great team, tough luck.

We had a decent round, although they were awfully good; smooth and persuasive and strong.  I did not find their witnesses very interesting, but perhaps our witnesses were too interesting; perhaps our “lawyer as cat lady,” played with such energy and creativity by Grace, was over the top.

The second level of mystery at mock trial nationals is provided by the fact that  you do not know, round by round, whether you have won or lost.  More or less all the judges tell you is “good job, go get some lunch.”  You find out, sort of, whether you won or lost by the quality of your next opponent.  This is because “winners face winners and losers face losers.”  So if the tournament starts with 48 teams, the 24 teams that win in the first round face one another in the second round and likewise the 24 teams that lost.  They do not go home, they keep competing.

Our opponent in the second round, on Friday afternoon, was Guam.  By halfway through the trial, I was 95% sure that we had lost our first round, because Guam was not good.  We were, in other words, in the “loser’s bracket” rather than the “winner’s bracket.”  One moment, in particular, stands out.  The plaintiff’s expert doctor had written several articles attacking energy drinks; he had even suggested that energy drinks should be banned as poison.  The defendant was an energy drink chemist.  Rohan’s first question of the plaintiff’s expert was:  “you have a vendetta against energy drinks and the people who make them, don’t you?”  The witness answered “yes.”  Rohan then proceeded to show that he written articles against energy drinks (“poison in a black can”) that he had testified against the defendant in the parallel criminal trial that he thought the defendant should be indicted for selling energy drinks.  By the end of this, the witness was more or less done.  We were 99% sure, at the end of the round, that we had won.

After each round we would go back to one of the motel rooms and “debrief.”  Our great state coordinator, Kyle Skinner, and I would go through our notes and make suggestions of what to change for the next round.  Most teams do this to some extent but we are bold, perhaps too bold, in making mid-course corrections.  For example, we decided after a second round of “cat lady” that the character was not working with the judges, that we needed something different.  So that night, Friday night, Grace and Yena stayed up late turning the elderly cat lady into an aggressive businesslike lawyer.  A lawyer who brought “motivational mojo” as well as legal expertise to her clients.  I worked as late as I could stay awake with the kids revising cross questions, touching up the opening and closing arguments.

Early the next morning, Saturday, we learned that we would face team VRA in the third round.  By this point the code of the team codes is pretty much broken:  I was able to find out in minutes that VRA was Tennessee.  Again, by the end of the trial, we were 99% sure that we had won.  Several of their lawyers had used notes.  In the real world, that is quite normal, indeed expected, but in the mock trial world, it is just not done.  And some of their witnesses were weak.  Our doctor, played by Alice Ju, was warm and engaging and expert.  Their doctor was almost like a record player on direct examination; rapidly spitting out long complex lines.  But on cross examination, it seemed like he did not know what he was talking about.  There were long pauses, awkward answers, missed points.

So, by lunch on the second day, we believed that we had two victories and one loss.  We were, in other words, right where we were at the same point in 2013, one win away from a top-ten finish.  Would we get that win?  We tried to make the best possible use of the break.  At one point the kids stretched out for a fifteen-minute nap on the benches of an empty court-room.

Our fourth and final trial was against Colorado.  Again, we had a sense of how it was going pretty soon; it was about even.  I thought our witnesses were better, especially Da’Rya McAllister, playing the part of the grieving sister, the plaintiff in this wrongful death case.  But their lawyers were damned good, and the mock trial national scoring system is tilted towards lawyers.  In our state, the witness gets two scores:  one for her direct examination and one for how well she holds up on cross examination.  Total of 20 possible.  At nationals, the witness just gets one score:  total of 10 possible.  By the end of the round, I was unsure.  Perhaps we won; perhaps we lost.

At about four o’clock, we left the county court building, walked up to the state capitol building, waited to hear who would be the two teams competing for the national championship.  To reach that point, a team has to win all four of its trials, not an easy feat.  And typically, the way the numbers work, there are three teams that win all four trials.  To select the two teams, the organizers look at how many ballots the teams have won.  And, if two teams have won the same number of ballots, they look at the number of points they have won.

At about 4:30, the organizers announced:  the two teams would be Washington and South Carolina.  I cheered along with everyone else, and quickly found the Washington state folks; could I join them as an honorary member of their observers?  Yes, they found me an extra badge, and I lined up with them, to see the case yet one more time, this time in the magnificent chamber of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.  We waited a fair time for the judges, and then there were a fair number of preliminaries, so that the trial did not start until about six pm.

Washington was representing the plaintiff, the same side that we had seen them scrimmage.  But I felt, at points, like I was seeing something entirely new.  During the scrimmage, we had not given opening or closing statements.  And the Washington opening statement, for me at least, were electric.  “Double tap.”  In the case, at one point, the defendant Ash Williams seems to threaten the deceased George Romero with a “double tap” to the forehead.  In the lingo of their college zombie group, a “double tap” was two shots to the forehead; the only way to ensure that a zombie was truly dead.  Williams, plaintiff’s lawyer continued, had used a double tap to kill his college friend Romero; a deadly vial containing both caffeine and concentrated cactus extract.  A double tap of poison that sent Romero’s heart into cardiac arrest.

Washington had found a single phrase to link up the two key parts of the case:  the threat, which went to show intent, and the science, which went to prove cause.  And a great phrase, easy to remember, from the case itself, far better than our theme, “this isn’t the way it was supposed to end.”

South Carolina, however, was on its game.  Their defense lawyer, in the defense opening, started the process of “flipping” the plaintiff’s theme, arguing that there was really a “triple tap” of the defendant’s own choices; using amphetamines, drinking caffeinated energy drinks, running and dancing and exhausting his weak heart.  The defense stressed intent:  saying that even if the vial had killed Romero, the defendant Williams could not be held liable unless he intended to harm Romero.  That was clever, because it created sort of an “inner wall” based on the juror’s assessment of the defendant:  and I knew, even before seeing him, that the defendant would testify that the last thing in the world he intended to do was to harm his best friend George Romero.

For the next two hours we sat and watched, in awe, two great mock trial teams battling it out.  It was exciting for me, but it must have been especially exciting and terrifying for my friends Andy McCarthy and Joe Genster, each of whom had a daughter competing as a lawyer, up there at the same podium where cases are argued to the Supreme Court.  The girls were great.

It was often a battle of slightly different mock trial styles.  The Washington witnesses were very “straight,” they had very little character, basically just what was in the affidavit.  Nothing akin to our cat lady.  The South Carolina witnesses had somewhat more character.  One witness, Ricki Grimes, was the company lawyer.  South Carolina played him as a zombie enthusiast, wide-eyed and perhaps a little out of his depth in legal issues.  The defendant, Ash Williams, was also a zombie enthusiast.  The last bit of testimony was re-direct, on the rules of the zombie club.  These rules, he explained, were to be used during the zombie apocalypse, when zombies attempt to take over the world.  “Are we, Mr. Williams, in the zombie apocalypse.”  “No,” the responded, “it would be great fun, but we are not in the zombie apocalypse.”  Thus trying to laugh away the supposed death threat of the double tap.

By the end of the round, I believed that Washington had won.  The Washington case just “held together” better than South Carolina’s case.  And they had been so clever on cross-examination, adjusting to what the witnesses had said or not said.  I walked from the Capitol to the awards banquet, arriving about an hour late, to a somewhat cold but welcome plate of chicken.  The awards started with various awards for adults, who had been involved this year or over the years in mock trial.  The speeches went on and on.  At one point I whispered that they would, soon, get to the awards for students.  “No,” Alice replied, “by the time they do we will all be adults.”

Finally they started giving individual student awards.  I was, I confess, hoping that some of my individual students, Rohan or Alice or Drew perhaps, would get an individual award.  None for New Hampshire.  Finally the team awards.  Would we, again, get tenth or perhaps ninth, because we had barely beaten Colorado?  No.  Number ten Illinois.  Number nine Louisiana.  Number eight Wisconsin.  Number seven Oregon.  Number six Virginia.  By this point in the list, we knew that it was not to be, that we would not be in the top ten.

My own face must have been pretty long because almost every one of my students came up to me, at some point in the next hours, to cheer me up.  These kids mean so much to me:  Rohan, Drew, Danna, Darleny, Yena, Grace, Da’Rya, Alice, Saisha.

We learned the precise results yesterday afternoon, as we were driving in the van from Boston to Exeter.  We were twenty-first in the nation.  We had won two trials, against Guam and Tennessee, and lost two trials, against Indiana and Colorado.  The Colorado trial was quite close, indeed one of the three judges thought we were better.  If one of the other two judges had agreed with that, we would have won that round two-to-one.  And with three victories, and eight ballots, we would have been number eight or nine in the nation.  But, as it is, with two victories and only seven ballots, we are number twenty-one.  The line between victory and defeat is slight indeed.

And that is why I have to view this as a victory.  We won the state championship, we went to nationals, we scrimmaged and competed against some of the best teams in the nation, we did well.  Darleny, in the plane on the way back, said “this isn’t the way it was supposed to end.”  She, and the other returning members of the Phillips Exeter mock trial team, intend to win it all next year.  Watch out world.