Trial team presents court cases

Tess Langfus

A team of seven University students entered a Florida courtroom last weekend, prepared to argue the case of a man charged with murdering his best friend with a shovel, then depositing the body in a Minnesota tree farm.
For more than two hours, the students argued to save Ruel Ellis’ life, but by the end of the trial, one defense attorney was unclear of the final verdict.
“I don’t even remember what (the judge’s) verdict was. But we had fun with it,” said defense attorney Beth Neitzel.
Whether the defendant won or lost was unimportant to Neitzel. She was more concerned with how well her team presented the case.
Neitzel is not a real attorney, nor is she in law school. She is a University freshman and, along with 24 other students, a member of the Pre-Law Mock Trial Council, a University Campus Life program.
The council consists of three mock-trial teams that compete against other colleges and universities to realistically present court cases based on information provided by the American Mock Trial Association.
While the program is geared to pre-law students, all undergraduates are eligible to participate.
Anyone interested in debate or even honing their acting skills will appreciate the experience, said University sophomore Paul Dehnert, secretary and treasurer of the council.
“It incorporates more than just law,” Dehnert said. “It’s a good thing to have on your rÇsumÇ because it’s a fairly complex activity.”
The University has three mock- trial teams, each consisting of seven to eight members.
Judging the competition
To win a mock-trial competition, teams do not necessarily have to win the case. Besides a trial judge, another scoring judge rates the students’ creativity, performance and realistic presentation of the case.
Each team member must prepare to play at least two characters in the trial: the attorneys, the defendant, the character witnesses or the expert witnesses.
The University team placed fourth last weekend in the Florida regionals tournament. The competition involved 15 other schools, each presenting the State v. Ellis case in four separate trials.
In two mock trials, Neitzel played the part of the defense attorney, for which she won an outstanding-attorney award. She portrayed the victim’s sister for the prosecuting team in the other two trials.
Another teammate, senior Jeremy Polk, won an award for outstanding witness.
“What you look for in the attorneys is their ability to conduct the trial and to use the rules of evidence, to use courtroom technique, to present themselves as professionals,” said Faith O’Reilly, associate professor and chairwoman of the Hamline University legal department.
“With the student witnesses, I want them to come across as real people,” she said. “It’s up to the student to create a personality for that witness. So I want to see a real human being.”
O’Reilly is one of the founding members of the AMTA and remains on its board of directors. The association originated at Drake University Law School in 1984 under the direction of Dick Calkins, former dean of the school.
Once a small organization of about 13 colleges, the AMTA now has more than 200 registered schools across the nation.
The University has participated in AMTA for the past five years and has gone to nationals four times. The program begins each fall with auditions, followed by research and then culminates in spring semester with competitions against other colleges and universities.
The practice
For the last five months, the participants prepared for the murder trial by studying affidavits, medical records and autopsy reports related to the case. The students also sought out the knowledge of national experts in forensics, anthropology, entomology and criminology.
“(The students) really need to investigate the underlying factual material in the case,” O’Reilly said, who wrote the State v. Ellis case for the AMTA college teams. The mock trial is based on an actual murder case from 1997.
“Some of them do an enormous amount of research,” she said.
The team meets an average of 12 hours a week, researching medical journals, creating visual aids and practicing arguments and cross-examinations.
“You sound much more credible if you actually know what you are talking about,” Neitzel said.
While Neitzel is undecided in her major, she said she auditioned for the team to see if a law program would pique her interest.
“Mock trial has been a lot more fun than I anticipated,” Neitzel said. “While it’s a lot of work and sometimes a lot of pressure and it can be really intense, it’s a great activity to be involved in because it’s so much fun.”
To assist in their presentation, the team’s coach is Sonja Larson, an attorney from the Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi law firm. The firm sponsored the team’s trip to the Florida regionals.
“I work with them on the legal aspects they might not otherwise understand,” Larson said. “I work on observing and commenting on their presentation skills to help them polish what they already have.”
Larson started coaching the teams in November after the students’ roles had already been established.
“As much as I’d love to take credit, it’s really their own work that’s taken them to nationals,” she said.
The University mock-trial members will compete March 31 against 47 other teams at the National Collegiate Mock Trial Tournament at Hamline University. If they win at Hamline, the University team could compete in the National Collegiate Championship in Des Moines in April.

Tess Langfus welcomes comments at [email protected]