Mock Trial A team Advances to Nationals

Mickey Keenan, an undercover officer for the Midlands State Police Department, was known for blowing open some of the department’s biggest cases. On March 18, 2016, the Blitz News Network exposed “Keenan’s” identity – Jamie Robinson. Hours later, Robinson was dead. One of the suspects in Robinson’s final investigation, college-student-turned-drug-dealer Skyler Sinclair, is now on trial for Robinson’s violent murder.

This is the case that mock trial teams will be preparing for in this year’s National Championship Competition in Greenville, South Carolina, including a team from University of Richmond. The school’s Mock Trial A Team qualified for nationals for the first time since 2009.

The A team consists of seven members: Abby Hegarty, JC Rowe, Madison Lindsay, Jabari Lucas, Dylan McAuley, Gia Nyhuis and Madeline Smedley. There are two other mock trial teams on campus, the B and C teams, with members placed accordingly based on skill level.

Tryouts are open to everyone each year, from which seven to 10 people are selected for each team. “We have a good system with tiered teams,” Tim Patterson, A team coach and Richmond Law School alumni, said. “The C team teaches basics, the B team develops those skills, and the A team is a highly developed team going out to win.”

The teams practice on Monday nights. Because mock trial counts for academic credit, practices are held during a scheduled class time, but students frequently meet on their own. They receive case materials from the American Mock Trial Association, and with these materials come many options on how to try the case. All team members must strategize and pick the witnesses that students will act out during the trial. Attorneys prepare for objections and learn rules of evidence. “It’s a great deal for students going to law school eventually,” Patterson said.

More than 800 college teams compete across the nation. In competition, teams of attorneys and witnesses try civil and criminal cases in which they direct and cross examine witnesses, make closing arguments, and argue the rules of evidence. Richmond’s team goes up against other schools with similar programs, with its opponent determined by a random drawing. The team finds out half an hour before the trial whether it is presenting the prosecution or defense case, with an alternating assignment each round.

Two judges score each part of the team’s performance, 1 through 10, in each round. There are four rounds, totaling eight ballots available. A majority of ballots is needed to advance to the next round. Typically, area attorneys judge competitions, but there will  likely be actual trial judges at Nationals.

Richmond hosted a regional tournament in February, with around 20 teams from the Mid-Atlantic competing. Richmond’s B team advanced from this regional to the next round, and A team advanced through a regional tournament hosted by American University. From the Washington, D.C. Opening Round Championship Series (ORCS), one of eight such competitions in the country, Richmond advanced to Nationals. Only the top 5 percent of teams in the nation advanced, 48 in total.

The A Team after winning their bid to the national championship. Courtesy of Abby Hegarty

The last time University of Richmond qualified for nationals, Patterson was a student on the team. He competed on Richmond’s team from 2006 until 2010, and has been coaching ever since. To prepare the team for nationals, Patterson will invite in a criminal defense attorney, have a weekend retreat for the team, and set up scrimmages with other nearby teams who qualified, including University of Virginia, American University and George Washington University.

Abby Hegarty and JC Rowe, senior team captains, have led the A team since their sophomore years. The two have been working since then to qualify for nationals, falling just short of that goal in the last two years. “We had a really good chance to get out of the ORCS this year, so accomplishing that has been gratifying,” Rowe said.

Patterson shared this sentiment. “It’s hard to beat seeing JC and Abby – who I’ve coached since their freshman years and who didn’t even know what an objection was – so excited that we made it through,” he said. “It was a cool moment.”

Hegarty will attend University of Denver Law School next year to become a trial lawyer. Rowe does not have any interest in that career path; in fact, he hopes to attend medical school after graduation. Yet both feel that they have learned valuable skills from mock trial. “I’ve definitely grown as a leader in the position I’ve been in, and learned how to motivate and work with people in a team setting,” Rowe said.

The team captains may be graduating this year, but the program still looks strong for next season. “We have several people that we know are well-equipped to take over,” Hegarty said. Patterson agreed, and said, “Hopefully next year we can pick up right where we left off and go back to nationals.”

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