Mock Trial, Real Life

Mock Trial, Real Life

By Katie Vloet
Photography by Leisa Thompson

Mock Trial, Real Life

Both of the mock trial teams from Ypsilanti High School have spent the morning in the Oakland County Courthouse sparring with other teams in a case involving cyberbullying. They're taking a break for lunch on the school bus, heads collapsed against the windows, and they debrief classmates from the other team about how they think they did.

One of the high school students asks John Robinson—a Michigan Law 2L and head coach of the team—if there is any way the two Ypsi teams will compete against each other in the third and final round of the regional tournament that afternoon. There's a chance, but only a very small one, Robinson tells them. They go back to crunching chips and evaluating their performances.

Inside the courthouse, the coaches—all of them Michigan Law students, members of an organization founded here three years ago called Future Advocates in Training, or FAIT—await the room assignments for the afternoon round. Michael Adler, a 3L who was the head coach the previous year and who stayed as an adviser for the 2010–11 year, watches the board. Team 18 is assigned room 1A. They'll compete against ... Team 12.

"Oh no," Adler says.

The small chance that Robinson mentioned? That's exactly what has happened. After training for several months, the two teams from Ypsi High will face each other in the courtroom. Sure, it's only a mock trial, but it feels intensely real to these students. They have sacrificed social activities to make it to practice. They have stayed up late to learn rules of evidence. They have become friends with people on both teams, and now only one team will emerge as the winner.

More to the point, there now is a good chance that only one of the teams will make it out of the regional tournament to attend the state competition.

Mock Trial, Real Life

The competitors start to stroll into room 1A. One by one, they come to the realization that the Ypsi Maize team is competing against the Ypsi Blue team. Friend against friend, sister against sister.

"It's not fair!" someone says. "I know John's entire cross," says another. "And I know Anna's entire cross," says a third. Lucy Smith walks in, and she is told, "it's definitely happening." She rests her head in her hands and glances at her younger sister, Sally, an attorney on the other team.

Robinson, the steadfastly positive head coach, takes control of the group and leads the students into the hallway. "I see a lot of nervous faces, and I see a lot of anxious faces. What this means is that you all did a hell of a job in the first two rounds"—only the top teams made it to the third round—"and this means we're definitely going to win."

They form a circle, put their hands in the middle, and shout, "One, two, three, dominate!"

One of the students adds: "But be nice about it."

This group of Ypsi High students began their journey in the fall of 2010. Most knew little about trial, the rules of evidence, how to make an objection. Some had a theater background, some wanted to be lawyers, some tagged along with a friend to the tryouts.

In the months since then, team members have come and gone, with some finding the after-school practice schedule too time-consuming. Many remained, though, and were willing to take on the challenge.

A tremendous challenge it was, too—perhaps more so because the program was still in its infancy at Ypsi High. This was the third year the FAIT students from Michigan Law had coached the team. The team was coached by a theater teacher with an eagerness to offer a mock trial team at the school but no background in the law.

Brittlynn Hall, '10, was a 1L when she decided the talented students at Michigan Law—with backgrounds as Rhodes Scholars and Teach for America participants—needed to be more involved in the community. She also knew that many schools in the Detroit area were in desperate need of assistance.

Mock Trial, Real Life

She consulted with a couple of people she respected. Julian Johnson, senior vice president of external relations at Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (where Hall had interned), advised Hall to focus on students who weren't at the bottom of the pack in school but who weren't guaranteed to graduate. Some students at the top of the class would participate no matter what, and some students at the bottom of the class may not be the best use of the program's limited resources."That helped me narrow the scope of the program," Hall notes.

Margaret Krasnoff, an Ann Arbor attorney, pointed out that Detroit schools would make for a long commute, and that plenty of nearby schools could use the new program's assistance. So Hall reached out to two schools, and heard back from one: Ypsilanti High. As coincidence would have it, the school had a fledgling mock trial program, but it needed more assistance from lawyers to coach the students. Or, in this case, lawyers-to-be.

Early on, a few disruptive students and other hurdles made FAIT even more of a challenge than Hall had predicted. Things turned around quickly, however.

Mock Trial, Real Life

"We had a problem with confidence that first year. My second year—we had to learn to say no and to kick kids off the team. If they're not willing to put in the time, it brings down the whole team," Hall points out. "You want to get the kids hooked. Even kids who otherwise wouldn't be ambitious—you want to make them hungry."

One of the kids who got hooked, and who stuck with the team during challenging times in her personal life, was Mayah Wells, who had been homeless at times in her life. When Wells's mother couldn't provide transportation, Hall or other FAIT coaches would drive her home.

Yet there she was, at nearly every practice, plus additional time at home preparing arguments. She wants to be a corporate lawyer or district attorney. "Being in the courtroom—I feel as though that's my forte," she says.

Indeed it is. Mayah and the rest of the 2009–10 team—FAIT's second year—earned fourth place in the state. "It was an amazing feeling. We thought we should'vewon the last round, but just to make it as far as we did—it was the most amazing feeling. It seemed as though all the hard work paid off."

Mock Trial, Real Life

That was the challenge for many members of the 2010–11 team: achieving fourth place in the state, or even higher. Early in the year, it seems an improbable outcome. During November tryouts, one girl rocks nervously as she plays the role of a witness. She is unfamiliar with most details of the case, though she was supposed to have studied for the tryout. Several students don't show up for their tryouts, one of them because he was suspended for 10 days.

By February, the students find their places as lawyers or witnesses, and they are much more knowledgeable about the cyberbullying case. They still need to improve a lot before the March 12 regional competition. Some of the witnesses rely on their notes as a crutch during practices, and the attorneys struggle with objections.

On March 12, the team travels on a school bus to the Oakland County Courthouse. The Blue team—FAIT declines to label either team as the A or B squad—performs solidly in both of the first rounds. The Maize team has a rough time in one round, when the competing school has one of the Ypsilanti witnesses impeached, but also has a solid second round. All the judges and jurors—actual judges and lawyers from the community—commend the Ypsilanti teams for not relying on notes at any point during the arguments.

And then comes the afternoon round, in which the Maize and Blue teams face off against each other. They are well matched. The attorneys use legal phrases with ease, making "preponderance of the evidence" sound like a normal part of a high school student's discourse.

One of the jurors compliments both teams afterward. "You all had an excellent grasp of the facts. The witnesses were excellent. Attorneys, you just need some fine-tuning. Work on your tone of voice. You don't want to be too newscastery. But everyone was very good."

The teams await the outcome. "We as a team have won without a doubt," 2L Ilya Feldsherov, head coach of the Maize team, and FAIT education chair tells the students. "Where we started six months ago, and where we are now, it's just incredible."

The results are in. Only one point separated the two teams, with the Blue team coming out on top. They cheer and high-five each other as they realize they will go to the state competition.

The celebration, though, is short-lived; Robinson says the Maize team will not go to States. "Everyone said we should have ended up with two bids, and I think we would have if we hadn't met up in the third round. The math beat us."

In the hallway, they all hug and cry. They are all so close that one team's success feels diminished by the other team's disappointment.

Lucy Smith embraces her sister, Sally, just a freshman but already a strong attorney who approaches Lucy's levels of confidence and poise in the courtroom. It isn't fair, someone says. They could be talking about the day's results, or high school, or life in general. At this moment, in this courthouse hallway, nothing seems fair.

Mock Trial, Real Life

Two weeks later, the Blue team competes in the state tournament in Lansing. Most of the Maize team is there to cheer them on. After two strong rounds, Feldsherov says he guesses the scoring was close, but he thinks the Ypsi team won both times.

All 10 teams from around the state gather in a room to hear the results. Ypsi's Maize and Blue teammates sit in a row, their hands interlocked, as the four semi-finalists are announced. Could they repeat the previous year's success as one of the top four teams in the state?

Alas, no. In spite of the impressive performances, they do not advance. Wide-eyed, they prepare to head back to the bus. Robinson pulls them to the side and says he understands their disappointment, but he is very proud of the way they performed. Now let's all clap for Shay Curry, who is graduating this year, he says.

And then, pointedly, he reminds them of the best news of all: "Everyone else is coming back." That means that 2011–12 should be a very good year indeed.

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