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Furman makes it to the ‘Big Dance’ of mock trial competitions

After a police department lab technician was found dead of an apparent overdose, an officer on the force was charged in a scheme to skim off drugs.

Erica Daly ’22 and her legal team spent the past few weeks preparing to prosecute the officer. And to defend him.

Why come at the case from both sides? It’s all part of the National Mock Trial Championships that Daly and her fellow Furman students participated in this month.

“The (fictitious) case is really interesting this year,” said Daly, a pre-law senior majoring in politics and international affairs and team co-captain.

“And we have to prepare both prosecution and defense cases,” she said. “It’s a good exercise and it’s fun as well to see what other people do.”

The tournament is hosted by the American Mock Trial Association, said Glen Halva-Neubauer, the Dana Professor of Politics and International Affairs who’s directed Furman’s mock trial program since 1995-1996.

About 725 teams from colleges around the country began competing in February at regional competitions, with 192 advancing to the super regionals in March. Of those, 48 advanced to the finals held April 8-10 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Among the 48 was Furman’s Purple Team, with a record of five wins, two losses and a tie. And because there are no divisions, students compete against the breadth of liberal arts and comprehensive colleges.

“This is the NCAA tournament of mock trial,” Halva-Neubauer said, “so receiving a bid is very exciting for the students.”

This is the 37th national championship and Furman’s 22nd trip to the finals, he said. The coveted top prize is a “ginormous trophy and bragging rights for a year.”

Sadly, the team didn’t make it to the final round, but Halva-Neubauer said Furman’s future in mock trial is bright.

“Our students performed at a very high level, and I am proud of them,” he said. “They learned what it will take to move to an even higher level of competition.”

Mock trials simulate the courtroom with students portraying attorneys and witnesses while legal professionals play judges and juries who score the students on their trial performances, Halva-Neubauer said.

As they prepare their cases, students review extensive affidavits, expert reports, photos and other evidence, he said, and while they have a strategy prepared, they need to be nimble enough to change based upon what happens in the courtroom.

Students are scored on all parts of the trial, from opening and closing statement to direct and cross examinations, he said. Scoring is based on a set of criteria that includes good lawyering and witness performances.

“But we often call it forensic ice skating because it’s a terribly subjective kind of exercise,” he said.

All the coaches are professional attorneys who have practiced extensively, Halva-Neubauer said. And cases alternate from criminal to civil every other year.

While most students who participate are pre-law, he said, students with other majors – such as politics and international affairs, history, psychology and chemistry – compete as well.

“Of the six seniors from the class of 2021, only one went straight to law school and a second will be going in the fall,” he said. “Two of the six will never go to law school and the other two, we’ll see.”

But the competition benefits them all, he said, by building critical and analytical thinking skills, public speaking skills and teamwork.

“My view is that this is great training for students for life,” he said.

Mock trial competitions run from middle school to law school, he said. The AMTA nationals are undergraduates only.

Daly, 21, participated in mock trials through high school, serving as team captain her senior year. She wanted to continue in college and was impressed by Furman’s program.

Besides the thrill of the competition and the lessons learned about arguing cases and thinking on her feet, mock trial also offers a sense of camaraderie uncommon in other extracurricular activities, she said.

“We all spend a lot of time together,” she said. “It’s not only individual work, but arguments to help your teammates.”

She’s typically played the role of attorney, and this year opened for the prosecution and closed for the defense.

“Strategy is a really fun part of it,” she said. “It’s enjoyable to get all the facts of a case …  and make more sophisticated arguments.”

Although the team’s chances were hard to predict because of the inherent subjectivity, the team gave it their all, she said.

“These are the top 7 percent of teams,” she said, “and … (they) had to have very impressive records to get here.”

In addition to Daly, the team consists of co-captain Marra Edwards ’23, Regan Richardson ’24, Co-Captain Trenton Newman ’22, Lane Schwab ’25, Conor Riordan ’24, Isabella Restrepo ’25, Joel Mason ’25, Boland Grayson ’25, and Blake Harris ’24. It’s coached by attorney Chris Bowden ’01; Anna Notation-Rhoades, department coordinator in business and accounting; Angie Littlejohn, former general counsel and executive associate athletics director; Jason Adkins, adjunct professor of theatre arts and performing arts; and attorney Mark Fessler ’05.

Last updated April 14, 2022
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Clinton Colmenares
News & Media Relations Director