STJ mock trial goes to court

The Mock Trial Team, an 18-year-old institution, is a hidden gem among St. John’s activities.

In 16 of the 18 years it has been in existence, the team has earned a bid to the Opening Round Championship National Competition. Coaches Bernard Helldorfer and Oscar Holt lead this team of 14 committed students.

“This is not basketball, this is what schools really about,” Helldorfer said.

After advancing with a sixth place finish at the Atlantic Regional Competition in February, the Team’s “A” squad competed in the Opening Round Championship Series of the National Mock Trial Tournament during the second weekend in March.

“It’s intense, it’s combative. Certain schools, like Columbia or NYU more or less consider themselves superior to us. It’s nice to see that we can compete on an academic level,” Helldorfer said.

“Our students here are just as capable as those from any other institution.”

The team’s season runs from about mid-November until March, during which its members spend Saturdays practicing from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. as well as meeting individually during the week to hone their skills.

Hema Aravindaksahn is a member of the team. She is a senior, but new this year to Mock Trial.

“We’d be here until 11 p.m. at night working on our cases. We go the extra mile to learn the information, that’s what makes St. John’s good,” Aravindaksahn said.
“We know how to play the game.When we go against NYU or Columbia they’re intimidated by us.”

Saturdays are spent mostly developing speech habits and a confident presentation in the courtroom, while the weekday practices focus mainly on individual research and in-depth analysis of the case and roles.

At the beginning of the year, students are given a case that is to be argued during
competition as if it is a regular trial.

The case given out in September is used for the entire year.

“We really push for background research, it’s what sets St. John’s apart in the competitions,” Helldorfer said.

“We will go to a medical examiner and watch an autopsy, or to an airport, or have a police chief give a lecture, or get advice from the pharmacy students in order to have a deeper understanding of the subject matter. Then, the person really sounds like who they’re trying to be.”

Tryouts start in the fall and run for three to four weeks during late September and early October.

According to Professor Helldorfer, 84 students initially tried out for the team this year. At the end of tryouts 14 students were selected to comprise two squads.

“Based on tryouts, we pick who we feel will perform the best and do the best in each individual role of the trial,” Helldorfer said.

Ricardy Fabre is also new to the team this year. For him, mock trial is a refreshing combination of his two passions: drama and law.

“Being a witness requires creativity and acting,” Fabre said.

“One of this year’s characters was an astronomer named Hunter Baxamusa. He was a complete nerd, but a lot of fun to play.”

Practices are long and intensive, and in addition to the weekly meetings, team members are also required to devote a portion of their winter and spring breaks.

“I live in Long Island, so coming by train or bus on a Saturday morning was rough at first,” Fabre said.

During an actual competition, teams are only allowed to use the materials that are provided and they are under strict time constraints. Each trial is meant to last three hours.

Trials are broken down into segments such as opening and closing statements or presentations of cases that are also bound by time limits and follow the federal rules applied in courtrooms across the country.

“Students have to know all of this, there’s a ton of material,” Helldorfer said.

During a competition, team members are judged on a grading scale from 1-10.

Overall, there are 140 points at stake that can be earned during direct examination of witnesses, cross-examinations, and opening and closing statements.

In order to recognize outstanding individual performances, judges award points in categories for “outstanding attorneys” and “outstanding witnesses.”

The ballot is very official, printed on long blue paper with the text “American Mock Trial Association Ballot” at the top.

While the scoring is formatted in the points system, Helldorfer noted that judging could be very subjective based on who is behind the pen.

“There are two judges watching the same trial, but they can potentially say two drastically different things and give different scores,” said Helldorfer.

“Even against these big name schools, academically and intellectually, St. John’s students can be as good as anybody.”

Claiming positive personal growth, sophomore Tahir Boykins described mock trial as a team that has sharpened its skills.

“It prepares you for the pressures of speaking by improving your overall demeanor-I can listen now, and actually hear what people are saying. I’m more perceptive,” he said.

After Freshman Peter Ozelius joined mock trial his first year at St. Johns, his perspective on what the typical college experience is changed.

“You have to have your head on straight for mock trial. I began to realize that it was more rewarding to get up early on a Saturday than to stay out all night on Friday,” he said.

“I had a skewed perspective of what college was supposed to be. Mock trial has been worth every minute. I’m sharper mentally and I have more direction.”