Cape students to compete in Delaware Mock Trial competition
This weekend, 14 Cape Henlopen High School students will compete in the Delaware High School Mock Trial Competition in Wilmington, Del.
“It’s a lot of work — it really is,” said Jeff Evans, Cape social studies teacher and mock trial coach. “I coach a lot of softball, and this event is every bit as intense as athletics. It can be stressful, but it’s fun.”
Cape began competing in the statewide mock trial event four years ago, and the program has grown since.
“Our administration contacted the social studies department and said they would like to get into this competition,” explained Evans.
“Until this year, it was strictly a club after school. This year, they created a class,” added 18-year-old Allison Lowndes, a Cape senior. “Not all the members are in the class, but a majority are.”
Cape senior Anthony Brady, 17, is enrolled in the mock trial class, as well as part of the club.
“It just seemed interesting, and it was the first year they were offering the class. The class really gives you a chance to get into it, because this is my first year in mock trial,” he said.
“I wanted to go into law when I was younger, and I went to a law camp for a whole summer,” said 17-year-old senior Genevieve Afrifa. “Then I changed my mind and decided I wanted to go into medicine. I figure, if I just have this year before I start college, let’s see what could’ve been.”
This year’s case is one that is adapted from a Tennessee mock trial competition a number of years ago.
“Every team in the state gets the same case,” noted Lowndes, who’s competing as an attorney for the prosecution. “Basically, the complainant is accused of tampering with the brakes of a man who died. He went into an intersection and allegedly stomped on his brakes but didn’t brake and crashed into a pole. The prosecution is trying to prove that this man, Cameron Paul, tampered with the brakes.”
“The defense is trying to prove that it was either an accident or perhaps somebody else could have done it,” said Brady, who’s an attorney for the defense.
Each team has three attorneys and three witnesses, for both the prosecution and defense. There are four preliminary rounds, on Feb. 21 and 22, allowing each team the opportunity to present both sides of the case. The finals will be held on the afternoon of Saturday, Feb. 22, before a panel of Delaware Supreme Court justices, trial court judges, attorneys and members of the legal community.
“Cameron Paul is responsible for his death,” said Lowndes, arguing for the prosecution. “We use one of our witnesses, an expert engineering, to prove that the car itself was tampered with.”
“For the defense, the best thing we can do is create reasonable doubt,” said Brady, “because we don’t have to prove that somebody else did it or that the brakes didn’t work. We just have to provide enough doubt.”
The Cape team is one of three Sussex County teams who will be competing in this weekend’s event. The 14 students are able to travel and stay overnight in Wilmington for the competition due to the support of the school’s administration and the Lewes-Rehoboth Rotary Club.
The students have been preparing for the competition since November and are eager to argue their case.
“We take a lot of time to study and prepare,” said Afrifa. “If we hit a wall with one of our witnesses, we have to go back and change it back up — just to get a feel for what questions work, what questions don’t.”
“It’s really a team effort,” said Lowndes. “During practice, we’ll split up in small groups and analyze the case or do a run-through — we go against each other sometimes to practice skills. Since we’re on the same team, we offer each other different viewpoints. When we split up, we tend to work the prosecution and defense separately, but it’s really a team effort.”
“I look at it as a sports team doing a scrimmage against each other,” added Brady, noting that mock trial is a unique experience. “There’s not another experience like it. It’s practicing public speaking, questioning somebody, strategy and presentation. You have to learn about technicalities and use the actual law.”
Aside from the teacher coaches, Evans and Amanda Jester, the team is also given guidance from Delaware attorneys Larry Fifer and Blake Carey.
“We coach and are supposed to facilitate discussion,” explained Evans of the coaches’ roles. “There are two local attorneys who are involved. They’re a big help and offer legal tips. Ultimately, these kids have to pick their theme, their opening statement. We don’t say, ‘Here, read this, learn this.’
“It’s really dynamic, because one team might have a theory that you haven’t prepared for, and all of a sudden you’re up there getting grilled. If you’re a witness, you can’t lie. You have to tell the truth. You’ll have damning things in your statement. You can make reasonable inferences, like, ‘I was there for that,’ but if you go too far away off field, the other side can say, ‘That’s an unfair extrapolation. This person is lying.’”
During the competition, real Delaware judges serve as judges on the cases, while Delaware attorneys serve as members of the jury during the mock trial.
“Every morning we’re up there, every team goes to the courthouse. They have a bunch of different courtrooms set up for us. Then you’re randomly selected for what team you’re going against. You go in, and either your defense or prosecution team is chosen,” explained Lowndes.
“It’s stressful but it’s also fun to be up there. Once we’re up there, it’s just the group of us. We get to stay over in a hotel, and we stay up all night, working on the case. That’s when the best work is done, because we’re all together, and we have a lot of fun.”
Last year, the Cape team went up against two of Delaware’s top-ranked teams and held their own.
“Last year, the highlight of our event was that we lost to a school that was in the top two by one point. We didn’t win, but we did win some gavels against those teams, which meant a lot for us,” added Lowndes. “The gavel is an award every time you do mock trial. There’s a gavel awarded to the best witness and the best attorney. Last year, we won two gavels for Best Witness.”
Lowndes said that the competition is nothing like it is in the classroom.
“It’s a random selection for teams, who you go against, and you can end up with another team. … The team has been practicing nonstop from months,” she said. “You know you might not have a very good chance, but you go in there and try your best.”
Evans said that Cape is currently working on creating a legal study pathway at the school, giving more students the opportunity to learn about the law.
“You can start anywhere from six people to 14. Some of the really elite teams will only have six, and they’ll play both sides. We chose to go with 14,” said Evans of the mock trial group. “We try to get more people involved. We could tighten up and go six, but we want to get as many kids involved as we can.
“We’re getting a lot more interest in this,” said Evans of the mock trial class and club. “The district has been wonderful with funding and support for this academic program. A lot of times people talk about how schools only support the sports teams. They have been more than accommodating for us.”
As for this weekend’s competition, the Cape team hopes to do their best, regardless of whether they place in the competition.
“I hope we do our best, whether or not we win the case,” said Lowndes. “The fact that we show up and actually try means a lot.”