All four UC Irvine Mock Trial teams have officially earned bids to the American Mock Trial Association’s (AMTA) national competition following their two senior teams achieving records of 8-0 and 6-2 at the Pacific Valley Regional Tournament held Feb. 21-22. Combined with the records of its other two teams, UCI Mock Trial has an overall record of 26-6.
UCI Mock Trial, led by President Marissa Oxman, a fourth-year dance major, is optimistic about the group earning its highest national placement in its four-year history. In its first year, the group earned a record of 4-4 and failed to make nationals. Last year, the team was ranked in the top 10 in the country.
AMTA competitions simulate the trial experience from opening to closing arguments, with certain aspects of the event standing out more importantly than others.
“My favorite part of the trial has always been the objection arguments. It’s what I find separates the mediocre competitors from the amazing competitors,” Oxman said. “The ones who are able to master case law and master the rules in addition to being wonderful presenters … [it’s important] because so many of our members want to become lawyers.”
One member of the team who has aspirations to become a lawyer is Gaya Shanmuganatha, a third-year criminology, law and society and psychology double-major.
Shanmuganatha first participated in mock trial competitions during high school and believes that the college events are much more competitive.
“It’s actually like a real trial. You have to memorize everything. You need to know case law, rules and you need to know how to persuade your judge … High school was just giving a clean presentation and not really knowing the rules or the case,” Shanmuganatha said.
Since first joining the group in 2006, Shanmuganatha has gone on to become the captain of one of the teams that emerged victorious in regionals. Although Shanmuganatha credits the tremendous amount of work she has done with the team for her success, she believes that the group is accessible to new members.
One such newcomer is Michelle Henderson, a third-year criminology and African-American studies major.
“It was very welcoming … [But] I think I underestimated it a lot … It’s more work than I ever could have imagined, but it’s worth it,” Henderson said.
Henderson was one of 31 members of UCI Mock Trial culled from nearly 150 individuals who auditioned. Of these members, seven have received individual awards, which are given to students portraying either attorneys or witnesses. Two of the UCI Mock Trial teams also won Spirit of AMTA awards. Mock Trial teams award these to peers who have proven to be the most civil, honest, ethical and sportsmanlike in a competition. Henderson was among those receiving awards for her portrayal of a janitor acting as a witness.
This year’s fictional case was a defamation trial. The basic story includes various witnesses who observe a candidate for governor and a professor arguing in a parking lot. Gunshots are fired and the professor is found dead, with the cause initially unknown. A news network then goes on air and accuses the gubernatorial candidate of murder. The next day, the death is ruled a suicide and the candidate sues the network for defamation.
For the competitions, AMTA distributes a case packet at the beginning of each year. The packet contains witness affidavits, pieces of evidence and other materials that each team has to research.
Although the basic premise of the trial may remain the same, Oxman explained that the specifics examined for the trial may fluctuate.
“They periodically make changes to the case. They’ll add a new witness or change the facts a little bit or add in a new piece of evidence. So, even though it’s basically the same case throughout the whole year, the strategy does fluctuate depending on the different facts and evidence that we are given,” Oxman said.
Attorney Justin Bernstein serves as the head coach for UCI Mock Trial. Bernstein noted that UCI Mock Trial was highly motivated to achieve victory because it has grown in more ways than one since its inception. When Bernstein began working with UCI Mock Trial in 2006, the group was composed of only two teams, and now the group has expanded to four teams. Aside from size, the group has also expanded in prestige.
“Before, the students … had some trouble getting into invitationals, and now with the success they’ve had they’ve been invited to the top invitationals,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein also remarked that UCI Mock Trial’s recent efforts have only added to its reputation.
“We earned four bids to nationals. Right now only three schools in the entire country can say that: It’s us, Georgetown and Harvard … [UCI] isn’t always mentioned in the same sentence as those two schools,” Bernstein said.
Although Oxman is hesitant to state that the team will outperform its showing from last year, she remains confident.
“The ceiling is the limit; we want to go in there and do as much as we possibly can. We would love to come back with the national title,” Oxman said
UCI will be hosting the opening rounds of the AMTA’s national championship at the Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach on March 21-22.