New school’s inaugural extracurricular celebrates “immense triumph”
By Josh Bootsma
SOUTH HOLLAND, Ill. (March 27, 2019) – “Objection!” exclaims Frances Boerman-Cornell, meeting the judge’s gaze. “Argumentative. Opposing counsel is not letting the witness finish her answer.” The judge ponders for a moment before ruling: “Sustained.”
The trial continues—the prosecution and defense of an alleged arsonist and murderer. Witnesses are called and cross-examined, objections are made, and persuasive arguments are given for and against the defendant. And then something happens not usually heard in ordinary trials: applause.
But this is no ordinary trial—it’s a mock trial. And these are no ordinary witnesses and attorneys—they are Unity Christian Academy students.
In fact, throughout the large building at the University of Illinois Springfield, this same trial has taken place dozens of times, done by dozens of high schools from around the state. But as the eight Unity Christian Mock Trial team members don their suits, rehearse their memorized lines, and confront the nerves that come with doing legal battle in front of a panel of professional attorneys, it becomes clear that very little about mock trial is fake.
Unity Christian’s first season
Started in Illinois in 1983, mock trial is an extracurricular that allows students to litigate a fictional trial as if it were real. Using a “case” provided annually by the Illinois State Bar Association, high school students from around the state spend months reading, brainstorming, memorizing, and scrimmaging to bring their strongest case to the state competition, usually in March.
Unity Christian Academy in South Holland, which will finish its first school year in June, has only 21 freshmen, making finding extracurricular clubs a challenge. Students and faculty were excited, however, by the prospect of a mock trial team and quickly took the necessary steps to make it happen. Though the team did not advance to the final round of the top eight teams at the state competition on March 9 and 10, coaches Neil Okuley and Charis Bootsma feel that the season was successful, given that the team did not exist at the beginning of the school year, and the students involved had no prior experience.
“It was an immense triumph,” said Okuley, Academic Dean at Unity Christian Academy. “For much of the season I was nervous because they were struggling during practice…. Fast forward to the end of the season, and they had it down. While we didn’t get top eight in state, that wasn’t really our goal.”
A standard mock trial case presents students with either a civil or criminal legal issue, along with legal definitions and a burden of proof. It also includes three witness statements for each side of the case and numerous exhibits that can be used as evidence during a trial. Schools like Unity Christian Academy work with the same case all year and participate in tournaments throughout the season.
A trial starts with opening statements from both sides, moves on to calling two witnesses from each side, and concludes with closing statements. Students can take one of two roles: witness or attorney. Witnesses are called to the stand and, using their knowledge of their character’s affidavit (sworn testimony), must testify as to what they know about the case. Attorneys can give opening statements, direct or cross examine witnesses, or give closing statements. Much of the material is memorized, though cross examination, objections, and closing statements call for improvisation and quick thinking.
This year’s prosecution was tasked with proving high schooler Alex Buckley guilty of arson and first degree murder. A gas station employee, Buckley allegedly used gasoline to burn and kill a rival student who was more likely to receive a scholarship that Buckley wanted.
NeShell White played the role of Alex Buckley for Unity Christian Academy. After being direct examined by her classmate Alycia Wright, she was cross examined by the opposing counsel from another school. “I felt good because I could see [the crossing attorney] was aggravated because I wasn’t just saying yes or no,” said White, “It was kind of an accomplishment because she didn’t know what else to do.”
In addition to learning how to hold up well on cross examination, Unity team members had much to learn throughout the course of the season, given that only one of them knew he wanted to join mock trial at the beginning of the year.
“The biggest thing I learned from mock trial is probably confidence,” said Favour Nwokoye, “because I had zero when I came here at first.”
Lauren Hill, who played a lawyer on one side of the case and a witness on the other, agreed with Nwokoye, saying, “Doing the opening statement was very nerve-wracking. I’m not used to speaking in front of people, like actual lawyers and judges. …And then when you’re done with it, you sit down, take a deep breath and say, ‘Wow, I just did that.’”
Hill and the rest of the team had the opportunity during one of their trials to perform for seven professional attorneys, all of whom provided feedback at the end of the trial. This affords students a learning experience that likely would not happen in their classroom. Many students said they felt more comfortable presenting in front of their peers in a classroom setting as a result of their mock trial experience.
The Mock Trial bond
Another common takeaway among the students was the value of forming relationships over the course of the season. Practicing on most Tuesdays and Fridays for a handful of months, the team spent many hours together working, thinking, and laughing.
“I learned how to bond,” explained Alycia Wright. “A lot of us, before we had mock trial, did not talk to each other much. But I bonded a lot.”
All of the students agreed with Wright, including Caleb Purnell, who said, “It’s fun being part of a team. Being able to really bond, that’s probably the best part about it.”
Current team members agreed that they would recommend mock trial to any incoming freshmen next year. “It takes a lot of hard work. It’s not easy. But it’s really satisfying when you’re really well prepared and you do a good job at a tournament,” explained Frances Boerman-Cornell.
First year a success
Given that this year’s mock trial team was the first extracurricular at a first-year school, there was no guarantee that Unity Christian Mock Trial would have any level of success. But after the all-freshman team had competitive trials against the two schools that would go on to take first and second place at the state competition, Okuley is impressed with the success the team achieved.
“It means we did something we didn’t think we could do,” he said of the season. “[Students] did something they didn’t think they could do, which is proof that they can do way more than they think they can.”
Unity Christian Academy is located at 16341 South Park Avenue, Building 2, South Holland, Illinois.