The Sussex Central High School mock trial team has become quite a force, placing second in this year’s statewide competition Feb. 24 and 25.
The team was formed 12 years ago, and Helen Elliot, a civics turned driver’s education teacher at Sussex Central, has coached it for seven. Out of 26 school teams Sussex Central ranked 25th in her first year coaching.
“It’s been a work in progress,” she said.
Students join the mock trial team by auditioning in November, and it’s not just students interested in pursuing a law career who participate.
“We have a really strong drama program at Sussex Central,” said coach Jordan Marvel, who’s been with the team for two years. “Witnesses tend to be in the drama program, lawyers tend to be more interested in law.”
Participants play either a lawyer or a witness at mock trial and have to memorize pages of affidavits. Witnesses have to react to questions from opposing teams in character, which is determined by what’s in the affidavits.
“The direct [examination] is scripted, so when our lawyer is talking to our witness, that is kind of like a play,” Marvel said. “But the opposing witnesses don’t know what we’re going to ask them or what they’re going to answer.”
Primarily, though, the competition centers on knowledge of the law, legal terms, court decorum and protocol. Each team gets a packet of case materials, including six witness affidavits, and develops questions for their lawyers to ask the other team’s witnesses. They have three months to prepare.
“This year was a civil case, a fraud,” Marvel said. “We had to research what constitutes fraud, and there are four elements. You have to incorporate those elements into your case – that’s what separates the better-ranked schools from the rest. You have to know the correct terminology too, like in a civil case, you’re not ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty,’ you’re ‘liable’ or ‘not liable.’ Those little things will get you those extra points.”
Elliot and Marvel said the team’s real edge is their attorney coaches, Ashley Bickel, of Gonser & Gonser Law Firm, and Eric Hacker, of the Morris James Law Firm.
“They come to practice with us after they’ve had a full day in the courtroom,” Elliot said. “They’re the ones that instruct us on the law and courtroom etiquette and help us with strategies, sitting down with the whole team and having a roundtable discussion about our plan of attack. They are without a doubt a godsend and a major reason why we’re successful.”
Marvel said what makes them stand out is that they’re actually trial attorneys.
“They go into a courtroom and litigate, and their knowledge of what goes on in there is priceless,” Marvel said. “The polish our team shows is from what our attorneys have taught them.”
The Delaware State Mock Trial Tournament is sponsored by the Delaware Law Related Education Center and takes place in the Superior Court of the New Castle County every year. It’s judged by law students, lawyers and practicing and retired judges, who score on things like their opening and closing arguments and direct and cross examinations. Most teams have about a dozen members; Sussex Central took 11 to Wilmington this year after one dropped out.
The tournament consists of four rounds, with two each day, and a fifth for the top two contenders. In the first round, teams are matched randomly. After that, rounds are power ranked.
This year Sussex Central was matched against Wilmington Friends in the finals. It was the second year in a row the two faced off for the top spot.
“I started to cry, I’m not gonna lie,” Marvel said. “It’s been a long three months of practice and it’s a testimony to our students’ work ethic. We were pulling 12 hour days and having some Saturday practices, and it really showed once we got to competition.”
Not only did Sussex Central place second overall, the team’s lead attorney, junior Holly Williams, dominated the competition by winning three out of four gavels awarded to “Best Attorney” in each individual round. On top of that, she won the gavel in the championship round, over the winning team’s attorney.
“I just can’t commend [the students] enough for all the work they put in,” Marvel said.
Mock trial participants do not receive credits toward their diploma, as it’s an after-school program, like any other club or sport. It isn’t without its merits, though, according to senior Nathan Greenlee.
“When it comes to college, every kid across America is going to have a teacher writing a letter saying how great they are, but this sets you apart,” he said. “When you have a recommendation written by a practicing attorney, it really brings your application to the next level, so even though we don’t get credits, the experience is very valuable.”
Greenlee has been on the mock trial team for four years and has been accepted to Regent University in Virginia Beach, where he plans to pursue a career in real estate law. Regent offers a program similar to mock trial called “moot court” that Greenlee is looking forward to, and it is ranked fourth in the nation by the American Moot Court Association. He plans on coming back to Sussex Central to help coach the mock trial team after his graduation. Elliot said that’s not rare.
“Many of them come back to help coach while at college,” she said. “They’ll take their personal time and drive back and forth from [the University of Delaware] or wherever in the middle of the week. So there’s a sense of integrity and pride in the program that we’re trying to instill in our community and our students.”
Elliot said the skills the students learn through mock trial will be used throughout their lives, and that’s why she coaches.
“You’re teaching these kids to stand in a courtroom, stand in front of a real judge and judicial members from the bar,” she said. “They have to think on their feet and defend themselves and articulate with poise and confidence, and that can be really overwhelming and intimidating. It builds character.”