Hills­dale’s Mock Trial program has a chance this weekend to do some­thing it has never done before: earn a spot at the mid-level tournament.

The tour­nament, which will be held on Sat­urday and Sunday at the Uni­versity of Notre Dame, will be the first round of the national cham­pi­onship series. The top seven teams from this tour­nament will advance to a tour­nament outside of Chicago two weeks later, where those who qualify will earn a spot at the national cham­pi­onship tour­nament in Wash­ington D.C.

Hillsdale, led by first-year coach and Assistant Director of Career Ser­vices Keith Miller, has two sep­arate teams that will be com­peting, one cap­tained by sophomore Phillip Ham­mersley and the other by junior Abby Loxton.

If one or both teams make it to the next tour­nament, it will be a first for Hillsdale.

In every tour­nament, teams are required to argue both sides of the same case each day for two days.

The case, which changes once a year, is built around a story in a hypo­thetical uni­verse with a spe­cific set of facts, laws, and pos­sible wit­nesses that par­tic­i­pants can draw from. All of this is out­lined in a “case packet” some 200 pages long.

This year, the case is a wrongful death lawsuit.

On each side, there are three lawyers and as many wit­nesses. Just like in a real trial, lawyers make their own state­ments, call and cross-examine wit­nesses, and raise objections.

A typical trial, Miller said, runs for about two-and-a-half hours, and at the end, the judge fills out a ballot to determine the winner.

“At the bottom line, we’re not actually scored on who the judge thinks would win a real case,” said Miller. “It’s just who does a better job presenting.“At the end of the tour­nament, indi­vidual awards as well as team awards are given out.

This is Hills­dale’s third year having a Mock Trial team. Loxton says the team has improved immensely since it began. “If you look at our records pre­vious years, this year com­pares very favorably,” she said.

Though the program has been around for three years now, Loxton said, in a sense, it is still new every year. As she explained, “We’re a new program but we’re also still a new team in that over half of our team has never done it before. There’s fresh insight every year, and then teaching the new people is helpful to improve our­selves too.”

A new coach also adds a dif­ferent dynamic. The pre­vious coach, Trent Harris, was an attorney from the Jackson area. “One of the ben­efits of me joining the team now is, me being on campus, I have a little bit more availability.”

Miller, in addition to his work at Career Ser­vices, is also an attorney himself,

Of the three tour­na­ments this year, Miller has been involved with the team for one of them, which took place in January.

“We’ve actually had quite a bit of success this year,” Miller said.

Ham­mer­s­ley’s team won the first tour­nament last fall and members of both teams earned indi­vidual awards. This past tour­nament, Lox­ton’s team took second overall, and Ham­mer­s­ley’s team took sixth. Also at the most recent tour­nament, Loxton and freshman Jack Shannon tied for first in the indi­vidual cat­egory for best witness.

“For him [Jack] being a freshman, that’s incredible,” Loxton said. “I was nowhere near that tal­ented my freshman year.”

This week­end’s tour­nament will be dif­ferent from the three pre­vious tour­na­ments in that it is actually a stepping stone to the national cham­pi­onship. Shannon said the pre­vious tour­na­ments were “where teams go to practice and to get to know other teams. This is the first one that actually counts.”

Miller said Hills­dale’s two teams are pretty well matched. “They’re both very strong. That’s actually one thing that Trent Harris, the pre­vious coach, had done specif­i­cally this year when he picked the teams and assigned roles. He tried to balance the teams, which is a little non-standard — usually there’s kind of an A team and a B team — and this year they really are pretty evenly matched,”  he said.

In the imag­inary case teams are arguing this year, the plaintiff is the widow of Lee Allen, a man who died while scuba diving at an unusual depth. She is suing Neptune Under­water Expe­di­tions, the scuba company respon­sible for the man’s safety. There are plenty of facts for both sides to use. According to the case packet, Allen had already been seen to struggle in shal­lower depths, so the company may have been reckless in allowing him to make the dive, but on the other hand, he withheld infor­mation about a medical con­dition he had, so perhaps he was to blame for his own demise.

One important witness on the plain­tiff’s side is the widow herself. Her por­trayer is judged not only on how well she answers ques­tions and handles cross-exam­i­na­tions, but also on how well she acts the part of a grieving widow.

Shannon is a witness for the defendant. He por­trays a medical expert hired by Neptune to inves­tigate the cause of death. Even though his char­acter is less emo­tional, Shannon said it is still more than his words that matter: “A lot of expert wit­nesses are very pro­fes­sional, clean-cut, straight­forward, but I try to be a little bit more per­sonable, like I’m letting people in on some­thing that they wouldn’t have the expertise to find out for themselves.”

Ham­mersley, rather than por­traying a witness, simply argues as a lawyer. Although there is no acting involved in this role, he still finds it exciting. “I enjoy arguing with people, so I like the thrill of public speaking and trying to con­vince the judge that your side is correct,” Ham­mersley said. “I also really enjoy working with my other team members to kind of bring every­thing together and present the case.”

“I think we’re very pre­pared this year,” Ham­mersley said. “I’m feeling good about regionals.”

Loxton felt the same way. “We’ve always had tal­ented indi­viduals on the team, and every year we’ve had indi­viduals winning awards, but this is the first year that it’s not just like some people are really good, it’s that the whole team is really coming together and the program is starting to blossom,” she said. “Hills­dale’s going to do great things. If not this year, then next year.”