Eight University students have reached the pinnacle of the college mock trial world and will travel at the end of next month to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), to compete with 47 other schools for the national crown. The 33rd annual American Mock Trial Association (AMTA) National Championship Tournament (NCT) will take place from April 21-23, and the invitation signals Wesleyan’s first time ever reaching this stage of the season.
In order to qualify for this prestigious competition, the team needed to perform well at ORCs, or the Opening Round Championships in Long Island, NY.
“Going into the weekend, we were all over the map in terms of confidence in outcomes,” said Nat Warner ’17. “I had a sense that we were going to make it to Nationals from the first night in the hotel, but that was certainly not shared by everyone [maybe anyone] else.”
If the team was going to fall short of Nationals, they did not want to let this failure be due to a lack of work ethic, as they started practicing before the academic year even commenced.
“We got back a week early from winter break and spent seven to eight hours a day preparing for Regionals [on Feb. 11-12],” Warner said. “After that, we would meet almost every weekday for three to five hours and then both days on the weekend for longer leading up to Regionals. We did take a week off after Regionals for R&R before ORCs (March 18-19), but then got back into it with the same schedule of 25 to 35 hours a week. The first week of spring break was spent on campus and entirely dedicated to prepping for ORCs. That is just this semester–work for the case began in August when it came out.”
The team will be sending eight members out to Nationals, and they are Erica Arensman ’17, Victoria Hammitt ’17, Mary Muoio ’17, Nat Warner ’17, Rebecca Elsner ’18, Zenzele Price ’18, Roman Darker ’19, and Heather Pincus ’19. The group was able to secure six thousand dollars in funding from the Student Budget Committee.
“We truly spent an unprecedented amount of time practicing, and I’m sure that the roommates and friends of everyone in the program could attest to that fact based on how little they saw us from January through spring break,” said Arensman. “In addition to the hours we spent meeting as a group, we also put in a tremendous amount of individual work, whether we were studying the rules of evidence or watching videos of great teams competing.”
While only a select portion of the team can participate in Nationals, the team has grown immensely in the past few years, and now has three competitive teams.
“In addition to planning content for the rounds themselves, there is a substantial amount of logistical planning that our student leadership does every year,” said Hammitt. “Many other mock trial programs across the country have coaches to help with that planning, but Wesleyan is somewhat unusual in that we are completely student run. Leadership organizes transportation, lodging, and the materials necessary for every competition, which also means figuring out how to pay for all of that. We are very grateful to the SBC for the support they have given us over the years.”
Speaking to the recent influx of depth on the roster, Arensman had high praise for the newcomers on the team.
“Every single new member on the team has blown me away,” Arensman said. “Of my four years in the program, this is the most talented group of new freshman and sophomores that I’ve ever seen. This is the first year Wesleyan has ever had enough people to field a “C” team, and they ended up being more competitive than Wesleyan’s “B” and “A” teams have been in past years.”
Individual standouts from the season include Arensman, who was given outstanding attorney laurels at Regionals and ORCs, as well as an outstanding witness award at ORCs. Muoio was named an outstanding witness at regionals, while Vartanian received an outstanding witness award at ORCs. Price, the current president of the program, won an outstanding attorney award earlier in the season at the Brandeis Invitational Tournament, as well as a witness award at the Yale invitation in December. To round it out, Warner and Hammitt both won outstanding attorney awards at the Coast Guard Academy in October.
“I also want to give personal recognition to Heather Pincus, one of the captains of the “B” team,” Warner said. “She competed with us on the “A” team last year and will be re-joining us as an attorney at Nationals after her brilliant performance at ORCs as a leader and a competitor. The program is going to be in good hands under her leadership.”
Warner gave The Argus an idea of not only what goes into the homework for a trial, but also what unfolds once inside of the courtroom.
“We get a case in August that’s typically around 150 pages,” he said. “That includes witness statements, evidence, and all the case law we can use. Each round involves two teams with three attorneys and three witnesses for each side. The witnesses and attorneys are both scored, so we look for good actors who can develop believable and interesting characters [accents are a major point-getter] to play witnesses and public speakers who can think on their feet to fill attorney roles. We prepare both sides of the case and are ready for anything–every round is different depending on the witnesses each side calls [there are dozens of possible combinations], the arguments the other team decides to make, and the ruling the judge makes.”
Wesleyan’s last roadblock before a flight to the West Coast was a date against a familiar foe in Bowdoin, with a spot to Nationals on the line. Arensman gave some brief insight on the details of the trial.
“The case was about a culture magazine which transitioned from more traditional journalism to an all-online publication—imagine Rolling Stone decided it wanted to become Buzzfeed,” Arensman said. “All of the older writers who had previously worked at the magazine got fired, and one of them sued the magazine for age discrimination. So, what the plaintiff had to prove was that she was in fact fired because of her age; the defense had to argue that she was fired for reasons other than her age. Furthermore, in order to actually win money in the lawsuit, the plaintiff had to prove she was tangibly harmed by her termination. To do that, we argued that she suffered PTSD from the firing and wouldn’t be able to make, in the future, the amount of money she had been making.”
From the Central Islip region, Boston College, Brown University, Fordham College, Harvard University, and New York University each clinched tickets to Los Angeles.
Surprisingly, the toughest match of the tournament was not the final face-off versus Bowdoin, but a bout with St. Johns University.
“We hit a team from St. John’s that our “C” team had competed against at Regionals,” Warner said. “We knew they were a strong, highly-coached program that made a lot of tricky evidentiary objections to try and throw off their competition. We had one of the best rounds I have seen us have against them and came away with a solid win. Our preparation really carried the day.”
“I actually disagree with Nat and Erica,” Hammitt said. “We faced Holy Cross and Yale at Regionals, both on the defense. Our defense case at the time was rather far off the beaten trail, so it was definitely tough to argue against such excellent teams. Yale is currently the number one ranked team in the country, and while we faced their “C” team, it was still an excellent experience to have such talented competition.”
What may be most important for the success of this group though is not their diligent minds, but rather their compatibility with each other.
“We genuinely like each other,” Warner said. “A lot of us are in the College of Social Studies, which is a common interest, but since the team skews so heavily towards underclassmen in terms of numbers it just comes down to enjoying doing things together. We get meals at a diner after every competition, go to each other’s shows, have great banter in our Snapchat group, and play this crazy game where you drive around and drop people off in woods and try to find them without driving off a cliff.”
“We just like each other, plain and simple,” Arensman said. “We all do a thousand widely varied things outside of this activity, but whenever we’re in a room together we’re always having a good time, even if it’s hour 7 of what ends up being a 12-hour marathon meeting. We argue about literally everything, but even when we disagree I have so much respect for each and every person on the team. At the end of the day, we’re teammates, but we’re also friends who are going to stay that way long after we stop pretending to be lawyers.”