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.”