Dramatic oratory by prosecuting and defense attorneys pleading their case. Poignant testimony from witnesses on issues that include battered women syndrome and drunk driving. That’s what you see and hear at the Vincent J. Apruzzese High School Mock Trial Competition, and this year was no different.
This year, 10 students at Bordentown Regional High School are hoping to go all the way. To date, the team has nabbed Burlington County and Central Jersey titles, as well as a county title in 2016. The team was also named county runner-up in 2017 and 2018.
The team is set to compete in the season’s final state competition, originally scheduled for March 19. The contest was postponed to a date to be determined due to the spread of COVID-19. Once completed, it will determine whether or not the Scotties and their competitors will move on to nationals.
So, what exactly is a mock trial competition? The New Jersey State Bar Foundation sponsors this state-wide competition as an interactive learning experience that provides students with the opportunity to learn how disputes are resolved through the judicial system.
Every year, participating high schools are given a new “case” to be tried; each school, with a team of 10, then divides their team into one for the defense and one for the prosecution, with a lawyer and witnesses for each side (all who are students). The foundation provides a workbook with competition information, as well as a mock trial instructional video. Teams also work with volunteer attorneys to help prepare their cases.
At Bordentown Regional High School, social studies teacher John Tobias begins putting his team together in the fall, after going around to different classes to recruit students who seem interested. He chooses students for the team by giving every student a “character” (during the mock trials, everyone involved—those playing attorneys and witnesses—are all referred to as characters) to portray.
“Then I ask them questions about that character, and those with the highest scores become team members,” Tobias said.
This year team is a diverse group of students, consisting of freshman Olivia McGlone; sophomores Maranatha Paul, Anush Nandyala, Summer Roberts and Sanya Varma; junior Kayla Downing; and seniors George Mousa, Suhas Kanamarlapudi, Keeler Robinson and Jessica Martin. Another student, senior Brett Schreiner, reads the case and helps the team with strategies, and lawyer William Simmons was this year’s attorney-coach.
Once the team is established, students start to study the case and then get assigned their role (lawyer or witness, for prosecution or defense). Past trial cases have included such topical issues as hate crimes, sexual harassment, texting and driving, freedom of the press and fraternity hazing. This year’s case involves a girl who, in witnessing a police dog running toward her friend, thought the dog was going to attack and so she wound up hitting the dog, who died of the injuries three days later.
“In the beginning stages, we are first just developing the case, finding strategies for each side and also finding holes in the case that could work for our side’s benefit,” Varma said. “Then, we start finalizing and polishing up our statements.”
The team meets a few times a week after school, but, in addition, said Mousa, “we also do a lot of work at each other’s homes, meeting together. Our lawyers will work with our witnesses on our own time, and we spend a lot of time developing our characters and the case.”
Although the mock trial gives students a sense of how the judiciary system works and what it might be like to be a lawyer, students certainly don’t need to be interested in a law career to be part of the mock trial.
“What’s great about the club is you don’t have to be pursuing law,” Martin said. “It really is good preparation for a lot of skills that we will have to use going forward, like analytical skills, critical thinking. As a team, we all have different interpretations of the case, and that kind of teamwork, we know we will be able to use in our future careers.”
Mousa said that teamwork is helpful throughout the season.
“We tell each other any flaws that we might find, both when we are prosecuting and then when we are defending,” he said. “My public speaking skills weren’t all that great at first, I wasn’t really that comfortable speaking in front of people. But now, having practiced giving closing statements and speaking for eight minutes in front of a jury, I really became more confident in using my own voice, language, hand motions.”
“The mock trial, and law in general, really is a lot of technical information, so we get to use our creativity in portraying the characters,” she said. “Each school, we noticed, presents the characters differently. The witnesses are all different from school to school. It also applies to lawyers. We have gotten creative in trying to find holes in their case and the way we portray them as well.”
Indeed, the Mock Trial instructional material states, “the competition is not intended to train students to become lawyers but to help them learn to read, write, speak and think better (skills which are absolutely essential to their future).” It has no doubt paid off in the past. Bordentown Regional High School students that have competed in the debates have gone off to colleges and universities like Princeton, Oxford, Columbia, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania.
Throughout each step in the competition, the students have to plead their case before a real judge (additional students serve as jurors for effect, but it is the judge who decides the outcome of each trial). The winner is judged by who performed better as a team, not in terms of innocence or guilt of the plaintiff. As Tobias said, “the judges don’t base their decision on who would win in real life, but who does better with what they have, as a legal team.”
The BRHS team is ready for the state finals, as is their coach, whenever the competition may happen.
“Our team has been in the county championship four out of the last five years,” Tobias said. “No matter who we compete against or how we do, I want people saying, ‘Wow, Bordentown is really good.’”