Mock trial team courts success in national competition

A geologist digs up a decomposing body with 33 wounds. The victim’s friend says she saw a man with a shovel that matches the wounds, but the suspect says he has nothing to do with it.

Who did it?

That’s what 14 Northwestern students tried to determine in a mock trial April 16, when they ranked sixth in the nation during the American Mock Trial competition in Des Moines, Iowa.

In only three years, NU’s team has made a name for itself among the 395 nationwide teams, 65 of which competed in this year’s meet.

“Everyone had to be in sync with everyone else, and everyone had to know what everyone else is going to say,” said Lindsey Gilroy, a Weinberg freshman. “If you’re a witness, you have to say the right things, and if you’re an attorney, you have to ask the right questions. So it’s a lot better than debate because it fosters teamwork more.”

The team was given the case’s specifics — a list of witnesses, police records and forensic reports — in September and has been working since then to perfect opening statements, cross examinations and witness testimonies.

During the four-round competition, team members play either the defense or prosecuting attorneys as well as the witnesses for the competing school’s side.

“I’ve learned some wonderful public speaking skills, like being able to think on my feet,” said April Perry, a Speech senior who will use the courtroom skills she has learned during two years in the mock trial team when she attends law school next year.

Although the mock trials are more scripted than their real-world counterparts, the students learn basic courtroom rules and etiquette that prepare them for actual trials.

“It’s pretty far-removed in some ways because there’s a huge emphasis on style,” Perry said. “And we’re over-prepared beyond belief. A real attorney is never going to have eight months to prepare a case and 12 witnesses.”

Perry played the defense attorney during the competition and said she worked on her opening statement for five months. But even during the trial, the fine-tuned speech was still being reworked.

“It had gone through huge revisions, but down to the day of the competition, I was still revising the first paragraph,” she said.

Weinberg senior Lena Goretskaya, who was one of the seven founding members of the team three years ago, said the team made huge progress from its first run-through in December.

“It can’t even compare,” she said. “It improved so much, we had no notes and no help from coaches. It was very real and professional.”

Because witnesses are given the same number of points as attorneys, team members also created complete identities for the witnesses, including costumes and accents.

Medill sophomore Amy Collen, who was one of three in the competition to be named All-American Attorney for her role as a prosecutor, also played the anthropologist who linked wounds on the victim’s body to the weapon.

“My character was basically a nerdy scientist, so I went to Osco and got some glasses that I could put down on my nose,” she said.

As the defendant, Weinberg sophomore Brian Budzicz said he tried to act dumb to convince the judge that he didn’t commit the murder.

“We wanted something that would entertain the judges,” Budzicz said. “They like to see good character development. So I interjected some Forrest Gump quotes in there to look kind of stupid.”

He pronounced the victim’s name, Cony, like Forrest says “Jenny” in the movie to spice up the role. He also emphasized his involvement in the Army to make judges catch the reference.

“A lot of the things we do are designed to be attractive to the way the judges score,” Budzicz said. “The verdict doesn’t matter because the judges don’t look at it on who won the merits of the case but on who did the best job of presenting it.”

After working up to 25 hours a week to prepare for the competition, several members said they weren’t surprised they did so well.

“Sometimes we kind of lost sight of the fun,” Budzicz said. “But overall, it’s a great experience to get involved and to be introduced to law school students and faculty — a side of Northwestern that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.”