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Mock Trial Competitions

By: Christina Griffin

Mock Trial is a club that meets here at Conard twice a week, from September to the last competition they compete in. On December 15th, the team went to a competition at the New Britain Courthouse. Some people were nervous about the trial, especially those who were first-timers, of which there were many this year. “I’m a little bit nervous just because I have never been to a competition before, but I’m also really excited,” said Addie Gill, a first-time junior. Even those with past experience were a little nervous. Jacob Weismann had been on the team last year but still stated, “Going into competition, I was definitely a little bit nervous but also excited. We as a team had prepared for this day for quite some time, and it's always great to be able to show off your hard work and ideally win the trial.” The captains were wondering how the team of mostly newer people would fair, one stating, “I was a little worried going into the competition; a lot of people on our team were very new to mock trial, and I trusted that they knew what to do, but I wasn’t sure how they were going to act under pressure." But overall, there was lots of excitement in the air about finally being able to compete after all the preparation. 

 

A simple explanation of how a mock trial works is that each team receives a packet from Civics First and the Connecticut Bar Association. This details the case, Jon Watson vs. Gillette Lodge and Catering Inc. There are six witnesses, three on Jon Watson’s side, including him, and three on Gillette Lodge’s side. Each witness has their own lawyer; the lawyers also question another witness on the opposite side. There is also the bailiff, who was Maisie Bruce this year. 

 

The basic summary of a case with 84 pages written about it is that the case involves a contract being broken by someone not putting in reasonable effort to uphold their duties, but who did it is the question. Jon Watson had planned his massive wedding at Gillette Lodge for July 4, 2020, the anniversary of meeting his partner Parker. (Note that each character is given a gender-neutral name so they can be played by any student. (This article will go by the gender of the witness on the Conard team this year.) But memorably, when COVID-19 struck, the guest count would have to be limited. Gillette Lodge consulted state guidelines and required the couple to reduce their guest count, but they were adamant about having all of their guests. One could say that’s not putting in reasonable effort to allow their wedding to move forward. But wait! State guidelines said Gillette Lodge could hold 125 people, but they only allowed 75 for Watson’s wedding, a self-imposed limit. 

 

There were many other details lawyers could question about this case and the witnesses directly at the trial to get to the bottom of the story. If the Watson’s ordered 8 pounds of truffles for their wedding that got canceled, shouldn’t they keep the truffles, not the catering manager, Conan Doyle, who ended up eating a pound and throwing away the rest? If Gillette Lodge claimed they could only hold 75 people because of their faulty HVAC systems from the 1970s, shouldn’t the venue planner Grace Lestrade have looked for many different options for a new one, not just her close friend Ned Anthony, who charged her for an expensive hospital-grade one? Why did Jon’s mother, Jordan Watson, persuade Jon to invite 60 guests who have no direct connection to the bride and groom at an already massive wedding with 250 people? Can the wedding planner Molly Hooper have other motives for testifying, mainly her cut of a wedding that never happened? If Jordan Watson was married before World War II, should her parents, whom she invited to the wedding, really be alive and in their 90s? 

 

Ok, maybe Jordan Watson’s age was never asked. For the record, that was my role; it would’ve been impossible to answer, and it was irrelevant to contract law but fun to debate during mock trial meetings. But the rest of these questions were brought up at the December trial. The team left Conard after first period and boarded a bus to New Britain. After arriving ten minutes later and going through security (notepads and lunchboxes could be sketchy, after all), the team gathered outside the courtroom, anxiously waiting for the bailiff to open the doors. There were many last-minute run-throughs of directs, the part of the trial where the witness and lawyer can craft a story. Students weren’t the only anxious ones; my button flew off in the middle of this.

 

On the plaintiff side, Jack Clayton, Christina Griffin, and Daphne Brewer portrayed Jon Watson, Jordan Watson, and Molly Hooper. If you haven’t noticed yet, all the names are based on Sherlock Holmes characters. Their respective lawyers, Jacob Weissmen, Brigid Feeney, and Addie Gill, were assigned to compete against Cheshire Red’s defense team. The first trial went smoothly. An actual judge was presiding over our trial. A real Conard’s witness was prepared for the questions asked, and the lawyers managed to invalidate the other side’s attempts. The only real setback was the microphone for the witness. Each witness sits in a box. It’s proper protocol for a witness to make eye contact with the judge when responding to a lawyer’s question. However, in that courtroom, the microphone was set up in such a way that it couldn’t pick up the witness speaking when they turned their head away from it. This was more of an issue for those sitting in the galley, although at times attorneys had difficulty hearing responses. Other than that minor setback, the plaintiff was feeling good as they headed off for lunch in a law library. The room was quite large and impressive. There were rows upon rows of very specific law books; one was dated as far back as 1927. 

 

The Plaintiff Team and Bailiff 

 

Next up was the defense. Isabella Ripepi, Susannah Laskek, and Neila Feeney portrayed Conan Doyle, Grace Lestrade, and Mycroft Holmes. Their respective lawyers were Hannah Dyjak, Carter Clayton, and Julianna Farquharson. There were two judges, one real and another a prominent figure, at Civics First. He was so prominent that those who competed in Sedgwick’s mock trial team recognized him as their judge for their finals in 2021. This trial was a much closer match against Ellington High School. The most intense battle was the one against the stopwatch. For context, one person on the team was the dedicated bailiff, who kept track of how long the opening, direct, cross, and closing took for each side. At the trial, the bailiffs from each side sat and used their phones to time it all out. When some interval of time has passed, they dramatically raise pieces of paper, saying, for example, “10:00” to signify ten minutes are left. They were really working hard for this trial. Our opening ended with just 20 seconds left. It became the most dramatic at the end when Ellington only had 3 minutes to cross the lead defendant witness, Mycroft Holmes. A team gets 20 minutes overall to cross three witnesses, compared to a direct’s 25 minutes, and crosses usually go for much longer. A break had been requested beforehand to strategize, which is when the other half of the Conard team sitting in the galley realized what was happening.  The only person who had no idea was the lead defendant. This meant she was super confused as to why Ellington’s lawyer was cutting off her answers with a sharp “that’s enough." The bailiffs eventually help up their papers reading "STOP." Ellington’s lawyer tried to squeeze in a final question, but the judge just said, “Sir, you ran out of time." Our side stretched it out at the end too, with one minute left when we had finished. And don’t worry; the microphones worked great that time. 

There was uncertainty in the air after that trial. In order to move on to the next round, both teams need to win. The plaintiff was fairly confident about their performance; the defense not so confident. After a long wait, the scores were slowly announced since around 40 schools had competed that day. Conard’s plaintiff team won against Cheshire, and Conard and Ellington tied, both moving on. 

 

The Defense Team

 

After that, the team made sure to refine their theory about the case to further strengthen their claims. The teams kept meeting twice a week. Not even the snowy weather could stop them; they stayed dedicated to meeting online, or the attorney/witness pairs would meet one-on-one. 

 

The second round in February was also at the New Britain courthouse. I obtained a new jacket with all its buttons, but not everything went smoothly. There was a bit of drama leading up to this case; a witness had broken their foot, and one of the attorneys had pneumonia. Whether they could come or if they had to be replaced was up in the air until eventually they were approved. The order had switched, so our defense side was starting first. 

 

This competition was against South Windsor. But once again, the real opponent was the clock. Many stretched out crosses and directs, but overall worked out. Another job of the bailiffs is to stop the clock during objections. This trial contained many more objections, with the judge giving leeway to both sides. That was the main piece of advice given to the lawyers—a great way to catch someone off guard and make them lose their train of thought. The defense lawyer attempted to impeach Mycroft Holmes. Impeachment in mock trial is when someone says something that contradicts their sworn statement to the police, or affidavit. The lawyer got very close to impeaching her, showing the affidavit and all, before realizing that she was right and dropping the matter. The South Windsor plaintiff’s closing had a lot of flair. With such iconic quotes as the opening “69,000 dollars!” and “pandemic profiteers," that one was his favorite, which he repeated a few times, along with the very impassioned remark, “They were pissed." Sure, a little dicey, but super memorable. 

 

The Whole Team at the Second Competition

 

Lunch was back in the law library, and some (me) were sad they couldn’t change out of their clothes yet since they were up next. The team discussed the passionate closing statement and clarified that the lawyer didn’t impeach Mycroft Holmes. 

The final trial of the day was for the Conard plaintiff against Tolland’s defense. The witnesses were well prepared, being able to smartly answer questions, forcing the lawyers to think on their feet quickly. Conard’s lawyers convinced Tolland’s witnesses. Conard’s attorneys made sure to object a lot, while Tolland didn’t as much. When they did, the judge would overrule, even though one attorney admits she totally deserved the objection for badgering the witness.

 

Then the team waited for the results. And waited and waited. The bus was scheduled to pick us up at 5:30, whether the scores were announced or not. So the team drove home, unsure whether it was moving on to the next round. 

 

In the end, the team didn’t move on, since only the plaintiff side had won. The trial was still a valuable time for everyone. Those who had competed in middle school were excited to compete in person for the first time in an actual courtroom. “For this specific trial, I was pretty excited because this is the first time that I have been able to do a mock trial in a court of law, as previously I would do it online with my teams because of Covid.” Even losing competitions can be a valuable experience for people. As Weissman said, referring to last year, “My favorite mock trial memory was my first year when I was in court. Although we lost, I remember how my direct examination of my witness went very well, and it’s definitely something I reference each year our team gets a new case.” 

If this all sounds interesting to you, whether you’re interested in law, want to improve your public speaking, or want to be a part of a club that doesn’t conflict with sports, then keep your ears out next year for when Mock Trial is starting up. 

 

Image Citations: 

  1. Abigail Esposito 

 

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