Courtroom Drama

Mock-trial team headed to national tournament after successful performance at regionals

Mock Trial Team

From left: Margot Cardamone '14, Austin Farneth '12, Juliana Carter '13, Andrew Chesley '13, Mary Kate Skehan '12, Josh Handelsman '12, Peter Wright '12, Will Nelligan '14 and Jenna Long '12 competed against teams from Fordham University, Georgetown University, Lafayette College and Swarthmore College at the regional tournament in Easton, Pa., and, for the fourth-consecutive year, advanced to the opening round of the American Mock Trial Association’s National Tournament.

By Christine Baksi


The case that earned Dickinson’s mock-trial team its fourth-consecutive bid to nationals had all the elements of a classic courtroom drama–a defendant charged with the drunken-driving murder of the district attorney’s daughter, testimony from colorful witnesses and crafty attorneys able to use unanticipated exhibits for their own advantage.

Dickinson’s team is familiar with the case, having argued it at four mock-trial competitions so far this academic year. They brought home first-place honors at the Patrick Henry College Invitational in January and had a third-place finish at the University of Rochester Invitational in February.

Part of their winning strategy is familiarity through practice, says senior Mary Kate Skehan.

“There's only one way to get good at this, and that's doing it as often as possible. Mock trial is kind of a constant exercise in revision,” says the English major from York, Pa. “The more you revise your material, not only does it get better, but you actually become more adaptable to unexpected arguments and rulings in trial.”

Making their case

The American Mock Trial Association (AMTA) makes available to its members–nearly 400 U.S. colleges and universities–one case that becomes the foundation for all AMTA competitions throughout the academic year, including the national tournament, in which the Dickinson team will compete March 17 and 18 at the Prettyman Federal Courthouse in Washington, D.C.

Mock-trial member Will Nelligan ’14 says the team is focused and has already begun practicing. “Generally, we practice two hours every weekday one to two weeks before each tournament. Further out, we practice twice a week and occasionally scrimmage at the courthouse downtown. As for nationals, we are practicing every day, including—for some—over spring break,” he says.

Mock trial—much like a competitive sport—involves strategy, coaching and a team playbook. Nelligan says AMTA keeps teams “on their toes” by occasionally modifying case material. Teams will often introduce unexpected evidence during competition. Skehan, one of the team’s prosecution attorneys, recalls a move Lafayette College made during the AMTA regionals.

“They called an expert accident reconstructionist who I cross-examined, and the reconstructionist brought along with her a demonstrative—a poster used during her testimony to demonstrate some of the points she was making—that I had never seen. They used photographs and bullet points from the expert's testimony and some of the information they had was inadmissible. There was a long objection argument and we ended up getting half the demonstrative constructively redacted, which was a huge win for our case,” says Skehan. “I was able to use the redacted demonstrative in my closing to make points that I wanted to make. Basically, it was kind of like a new piece of evidence that I hadn't seen before and had to turn around to make work for our case.”

Skehan’s skillful cross-examination and her overall performance at regionals earned her the coveted All-Region Best Attorney honor. “This is the first time I've ever been ranked first on every ballot, and we had a really difficult field of opponents, so the award feels great,” she says. “Given the difficulty of the teams we faced and the skill of their attorneys, I'm more proud of this award than any other I've ever won,” adds Skehan, who was named an All-American Best Attorney at the 2010 national championship tournament in Memphis, Tenn.

Frank Williams, a first-year student from Carson, Calif., also was recognized by AMTA judges as an All-Region Best Attorney.

Star witness

Nelligan, a political-science and history double-major from Portland, Maine, was named an AMTA All-Region Best Witness and was the only person at the regional tournament to qualify for an award as both a prosecution and a defense witness.

In determining the best witness for the prosecution and defense, judges consider the witness’s ability to further the facts of the case, as well as personality, sense of humor and wardrobe. Nelligan’s sense of style, in fact, got a nod from the judges. “One judge wrote ‘great socks’ on my ballot,” he says.

Nelligan, who as a high-school student earned two bids to the American Legion Oratorical Competition national tournament, says he channels his inner actor on the witness stand. “I’ve always enjoyed acting but haven’t been able to find time for a spot in a play or drama club. This seemed like the perfect balance. A large portion of being on the witness stand is improvised and a lot of fun because the characters give me a lot of room to insert bits and pieces of funny personalities,” he says.

Nelligan credits his participation on the mock-trial team for polishing skills that will be important in his career, which he hopes will jointly involve law, history and politics. “I've become a better collaborator, debater and public speaker, and I've developed incredible relationships with my peers and our coaches.”

Dickinson’s nine-member mock-trial team will compete in the opening round of the AMTA National Tournament with teams from Cornell University, Georgetown University, Lafayette College, St. John’s University and the University of Pennsylvania. Visit the Dickinson Web site for news on the team’s performance. 

Published February 29, 2012