Boise Mock Trial Nationals

I am in the Boise airport, waiting to board my flight home to California, after attending high school mock trial nationals with the Phillips Exeter mock trial team, which I coach.

I am, I must confess, tired and disappointed.  You are not sure, as the weekend progress, how you have done, but we thought by the end of yesterday that we had won three trials and lost one.  It turned out, when the results were released this morning, that we won only one trial and lost three.  So instead of being, as we hoped, something like tenth in the nation, we were thirty-fourth.  Disappointing.

Let me back up however to tell the story of the weekend in order.

We had an amazing team:  Holly, Yena, Rebecca, Alejandro, Daisy, Josephine, Alistair, Anna.  We were “one down” because one student, a week ago, had to go home for an emergency, but Holly “stepped up” and took over what she would have done.  So each of our lawyers had a lot on her plate.  We also had good coaches, if few:  myself, our former state coordinator Kyle Skinner, and our new state coordinator, Jared Bedrick.  Each of us brings something different; Kyle is not a lawyer, but he has much more mock trial experience, starting when he competed in high school and won the national championship; Jared has much more court room experience, and has spent serious time thinking about how best to frame cross-examination questions.

The students arrived late Wednesday night and we had scrimmages on Thursday.  We had good scrimmages against Georgia and Wisconsin, good teams, but we did pretty well we thought.  We made some serious changes to our case that night; in particular, one witness changed from being someone who drank from time to time to someone who drank daily.  We thought it would be different, funny, interesting.

Friday morning we learned that the first team we would face, first, the defending national champions, the team from Nebraska.  That is just the way the tournament works, the first pairings are random, so two strong teams can face one another.  We had an amazing “pre-trial conference,” in which Daisy led us in a theatrical “get the stress out” exercise, shaking our hands and feet, laughing and dancing.  The other teams must have wondered what the HECK was going on in that conference room.

Nebraska was incredibly prepared, smooth, articulate, if a little dull.  The most dramatic, and disappointing, moment of the round came when they accused us an unfair extrapolation.  The witness was Sam Dacy, a state investigator, and she was explaining what she learned from one of the other witnesses, Shannon Bennett.  Shannon had already testified that she saw Gabby Echeveria pour something into Illan Zabala’s water trough, and our Dacy testified that she had learned, in her investigation, from Shannon, about this pouring incident.  We did not think the extrapolation was unfair, because the affidavits were clear that Dacy interviewed Shannon.  But the Dacy affidavit did not SAY that Shannon informed Dacy about the pouring incident, and when the other team objected, we were not as prepared as we should have been, and the judge ruled that the extrapolation was unfair.

After that it was difficult:  it invariably colors the round when the judge finds that one team has acted UNFAIRLY.  And, in fairness to Nebraska, they would have won the round even without this issue; they were just that good, that prepared.  When we left the round, we were pretty sure we had lost.

We had a good lunch plan:  we went to a nearby Chick-fil-A, ate, and then went to the Courtyard, discussed, and in particular talked about how to revise our presentations to avoid the unfair extrapolation objection, and how to deal with it if it did arise.

Friday afternoon we faced South Korea.  We are sort of sister programs, because Kyle Skinner, who was the NH state coordinator, and remains an invaluable part of NH mock trial, also judges the annual South Korean competition, and helps that team.  And we are one of the few programs that has a native Korean speaker as part of the team.  The Koreans were not bad, but it was clear that our kids were better, just knew the rules better, could do a better job of portraying the characters.

Friday night, after dinner, we worked again, reviewing our notes from the day, making little changes here and there to what we proposed to say, planning how better to make objections and deal with objections.

Saturday morning we faced Texas.  We were on the plaintiff side, probably our better side, because we had an amazing plaintiff, Alejandro playing the role of Illan Zabala, the sheep herder.  He started, in his authentic Spanish accent, “hello my name is Illan Zabala.”  What do you do for a living?  “I have a simple but noble profession:  I am a sheep herder.”  And we had other good witnesses, the perky and enthusiastic investigator, Sam Dacy, played by Anna.  “I investigated crimes involving animals, not crimes BY animals, they do not commit a lot of crimes, but crimes against animals.”  Texas was very good, it was an even round, but at the end of it I thought we had won; we just were a little better on objections than Texas, I thought.

We did lunch exactly the same way; same restaurant; same order; same post-lunch conference.

In the Saturday afternoon pre-conference Rebecca said something so moving and memorable.  We often talk, in Exeter mock trial, about the “dream team,” the team with Rohan and Joon and Gene and Angie that took tenth at nationals in Indianapolis.  This team, she said, as she looked around the little conference room, is a dream team too, an amazing group of people, capable of amazing things.

Saturday afternoon we faced Mississippi.  We were on the defense side, and again we had great witnesses, especially Daisy in the role of Luz Bennett, the defendant, the mother of Shannon Bennett.  Luz and Shannon do not get along, and Daisy was just great as the disappointed mother, saddened by her daughter’s rejection.  Alejandro, on this side, played a drunken ranch hand, the one accused of pouring something into the water trough. When questioned about this, he said “I’ll be honest, I don’t remember everything about that afternoon, but I am sure that if I poured anything, it was a flat beer, or an answer to the call of nature.”  This was an extrapolation, and we were prepared for the objection, but it did not come.

The damn objection did come, however, at another place.  Daisy was testifying as Luz Bennett, the mother.  We showed her an exhibit, a picture of a book sitting next to a box of blue tongue vaccine.  She said that she recognized both objects, the book on her shelf in her office, and the vaccine box.  She said, however, that she had never seen them together, because she kept the vaccine in the refrigerator.  The other team objected; unfair extrapolation.  We argued that it was not unfair; her friend and veterinarian said (in her affidavit) that she had advised Luz Bennett how to store the vaccine; it was reasonable to assume that Luz had heard that advice and followed it.  But again, the judge ruled that we had acted unfairly, and I fear that colored the views of the judges not just of this witness, but other parts of our case.

There was another interesting incident just at the end of the trial.  The opposing lawyer, when he started his closing argument for the plaintiff, did not “reserve time for rebuttal.”  He spoke about three minutes, so he should have had about two minutes for rebuttal.  Our lawyer closed for the defense, but when the opposing lawyer stood up for his rebuttal, the presiding judge said “you did not reserve time” and he was not allowed to give his rebuttal.  The kid was crushed, in tears.  When the judges returned, in about ten minutes, the presiding judge apologized; he realized that the rules did not require the plaintiff lawyer to say that he intended to reserve any unused time; the high school national rules provide that time is reserved regardless of whether there is a formal request.  The three scoring judges then said that the incident “had not affected their scores.”  I feared however that the other team might have won a few “sympathy points.”

We felt okay at the end of the trial; I thought it was very close but that we had probably won.  In particular I felt like (with that one notable exception) our lawyers had the better of objection battles; they got in the evidence they wanted to get in; they kept out the evidence they wanted out; and some times even when the presiding judge ruled against us, the scoring judges (I thought) credited us for having the better arguments.  We went outside to the courthouse steps, to learn who would compete for the national title.  Iowa and Nebraska.  In prior years, I have gone to the final round, to watch and learn, but this year I was too tired.

We had dinner, then went to the award ceremony.  After too much time waiting, and listening to cowboy poetry, they announced the awards.  We were pretty sure that Alejandro would win a witness award; opposing coaches, all weekend, were telling me he was one of the best witnesses they had seen.  But no, when they gave out the awards, no award.  I thought it quite possible, as well, that our team would be tenth again.  After all, I thought, we were “three and one” and most not quite all such teams are in the top ten.  But no, as they gave out awards, we were not tenth, we were not ninth, we were not eighth, we were not seventh, at which point I knew we were not getting an award, I knew we were not in the top five.  Bother.

Afterwards, I spoke with some of the students, both some of the younger students, about their mock trial futures, and the current seniors, about who should be co-heads of the club next year.  It was midnight by the time I got back to my hotel room, and I was up before five to get here to the airport.

The results spread sheet told us some things we knew, some we did not.  As we thought, we lost to Nebraska and we beat South Korea.  But, to my surprise, we lost to both Texas and Mississippi.  In both cases it was close; one of the three scoring judges in each round thought that we won the round and the ballots were close.  In the Texas round, for example, one of the judges awarded us 94 points and awarded the other team 97 points.  If she had awarded us say 95 points, and awarded Texas say 94 points, we would have won her ballot and won the round.  By such slight subjective margins are mock trials decided, the difference between one judge’s view of one witness or one lawyer’s work.

Last night, at the awards banquet, alluded to the old ABC sports show, Wide World of Sports.  In the opening credits, the voice over talks about the “thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.”  The adults in the audience remember the video imagery at that point, of a skier crashing at sixty miles an hour, spinning helplessly out of control, not just defeated but crushed and nearly dead.  That is a bit how I feel this morning; defeated, disappointed, nearly dead.  But the speaker’s point was that unless you compete, unless you are willing to risk everything against great competition, you never know the thrill of victory.  And she was right.

So I am glad that we came, proud of the way we competed, even if right now it hurts.