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UNH mocktrial team receives best score in recent memory

Published: Monday, April 17, 2006

Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 15:02

This year at Regionals held at Clark University, The UNH Mock Trial team posted a 3-5 record, their best finish in a long time.

"Let's just say we are getting some respect," said junior Jenna Berry, who competed with the mock trial team against some of the top minds from schools like Boston College, MIT and Yale.

"We finished in the middle," said Caroline Lieder. "There were about 32 teams at Regionals, and we beat about as many people who beat us."

The mock trial program at UNH is a course available for undergraduates who want a chance at trying their skills in a simulated courtroom. Mock trials are planned trials that recreate the procedures, dynamics and drama of civil or criminal court trials. The course is a prime opportunity for those students who want to test their debating or theatrical abilities in a demanding arena. During the course students accrue an understanding of law proceedings and participate on teams as attorneys, witnesses and supporting players. The mock trial team competes against other schools in the New England region.

"Getting the chance to compete against top schools is exhilarating," said junior Tom Faiella.

This year's class had seven students and was coached by Professor Charles Putnam, co-director of Justiceworks, and practicing criminal defense attorney, Tracy Benson. None of the students had any prior experience with courtroom procedure. With the help of Putman, Benson and long nights at the library, they developed not only knowledge of legal policy, but became a congruent working unit.

"I think they have started to finish each other's sentences," said Benson.

"Through the year we see them go from knowing nothing about trial procedure, to thinking on their feet and making objections. To be able to articulate orally is difficult for seasoned attorneys never mind for a student practicing for a semester," Benson said

Benson and Putnam teach the weekly three-hour class. Through traditional class discussions, guest speakers to assist with practice sessions, and in-class performances, students study all types of litigation. The team also scrimmages other teams to get ready for tournaments. However, with so many variables in the courtroom there are some things you can't prepare for, said Putnam.

"It is hard to appreciate what they go through until they get into it," said Putnam

Benson agreed that as coaches, a main goal is for students not only to grasp legal policy, but also find their own style in the courtroom.

"There is a lot of style that goes into it," said Benson. "There are the basic facts and procedure, but what we try to coach out is their own style. They are getting a broad introduction to advocacy, that is what makes this real and what they do here transferable to real life," Benson said.

A lot of it is trial and error, as junior Jake Marvelley found out when he was stuck while examining a witness at a scrimmage in the Dover District Courtroom.

"I had no idea what to do in front of a New Hampshire Superior Justice. He told me that I was in contempt and couldn't continue. That was before we went over improvisation in class," Marvelley said

"You've got to roll with the punches," said Berry, "but a sense of team develops and you manage to survive."

That sense of team is tested during tournaments. Each team around the nation gets a simulated case created by the American Mock Trial Association (AMTA), which switches each year from criminal to civil. The team then breaks the case down splitting teammates into attorneys and witnesses.

In order to be as well prepared for a trial as possible the team spends a lot of time planning their case.

"The workload builds up quickly during tournament, it kind of sneaks up on you. You see an enormous amount of work product and it is always impressive how it comes out during competition," said Marvelley.

At a tournament, teams are set into brackets and present their cases against teams from other schools. There are two rounds of prosecution and two rounds of defense. Teams get points on their presentation of the case and the quality of the witnesses. The AMTA brings in attorneys from the surrounding area to rule over the proceedings and decide the winner.

The mock trial team is not just for Political Sciences majors or those who plan to practice law. The class is a great way to showcase all sorts of different skills in a competitive, entertaining format.

"Public speaking, rhetoric, critical analysis, all come together while still being fun at the same time," said Marvelley.

Lieder agreed.

"Everyone on the team is very different and brings something different. But we are all hardworking, competitive and like to have fun," Lieder said.

There will be an informational meeting on April 20 at 7 p.m. in Murkland 102 for those who want to learn more about the mock trial program. For those unable to attend the meeting information can be further obtained by contacting Professor Charles Putman as charlesputnum@unh.edu.

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