UWS teams prepare for trialDrinking and driving turned Vanessa Sullivan’s 21st birthday into her last. It also left her friend, Danny Dawson, facing charges of murder and driving under the influence for his role in the fatal crash.
By: Maria Lockwood, Superior Telegram
Drinking and driving turned Vanessa Sullivan’s 21st birthday into her last. It also left her friend, Danny Dawson, facing charges of murder and driving under the influence for his role in the fatal crash.
This weekend, college students will make his case their own during the Durst Memorial Mock Trial Regional Tournament, taking place at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Serving as both witnesses and attorneys, they lay out the facts, provide testimony and ask for a judgment in the case.
“It’s a great opportunity to see how a courtroom operates,” said Maria Cuzzo, UWS professor of legal studies and mock trial coach.
Members of the public are encouraged to sit in on the rounds, which begin at 6:30 p.m. today, 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and 9:30 a.m. Sunday in Swenson Hall and the Yellowjacket Union.
“It definitely gives us a boost to have an audience,” said UWS senior Mark Wick. “We feel like what we’re saying actually matters. We feel the pressure a little more, take the round a little more seriously, and keep more focused.”
Mock trial is an academic, forensic activity that teaches students to analyze, present and defend a case to the trial court. Participants put in six hours of practice a week, as well as up to three hours of their own time on preparation. Like the legal profession itself, Cuzzo said, mock trial is labor-intensive.
“It can be a lot of work at times, but you get out what you put in,” Wick said. “It’s really a great way to practice essential skills.”
Alicia Kline has been involved all five of her years at UWS.
“I love mock trial because it provides a way for me to focus my energies and learn about public speaking skills and the law, all while getting to know a fantastic group of people and learning how to work in a group to achieve competitive and personal success,” she said. “Mock trial has helped me become more effective at arguing, a better public speaker, a better critical thinker, a better student and even a better person.”
Participants come from a range of majors — legal studies, communicating arts, accounting, computer science, math and more. Cuzzo enjoys watching as they transform. Many come in too shy to speak in public. Yet by the end of the year, they are confidently, accurately and persuasively, stating their case.
Teams tackle a new case each year, complete with a two-inch thick binder full of pertinent information. Students take on the role of a witness or an attorney. Witnesses use their acting skills to portray a believable character. Attorneys need to know the rules of evidence, which dictate what is and isn’t allowed in the courtroom.
“We have to constantly be thinking about what the witness is saying when they answer our questions, form new questions on the fly, make it all seem natural, and be prepared at any moment to argue why what we’re doing is allowed,” Wick said. “It’s a great way to practice multitasking, critical thinking, improvisation and so much else.”
They work without notes at all times, responding to changes in the case as objections are either sustained or overruled.
To make the tournament a success, many legal professionals donate their time to judge the rounds.
“I volunteer because, as a former high school social studies teacher, I see the value in this type of work,” said Minnesota 6th District Court Judge Heather Sweetland. Over the years, she has admired the amount of work mock trial students put into their cases and enjoyed some rather creative arguments.
“The students do a terrific job,” Sweetland said.
“Every year I’m amazed at the quality of the arguments I hear,” said 6th District Court Judge Mike Cuzzo.
The Dawson case, which spotlights both the drinking and driving phenomenon and the tradition of a booze-soaked 21st birthday, was especially provocative, Maria Cuzzo said. It led to many discussions between UWS students and their four coaches.
“This year’s case has been ... interesting,” Wick said. The characters are easy to relate to because they are college students, he said, and from a first-person perspective some of the actions characters take seem reasonable, given the context.
“It’s a really interesting twist on things,” Wick said.
UWS boasts its largest mock trial group ever this year — 18 students, split into two teams. The tournament will bring another 21 teams from the Midwest into Superior for the three-day competition. The top eight teams will move on to national competition in Illinois in March. The top six teams from that event will earn one of 40 slots for the top-flight national competition in April.
Kline said one of her best experiences in mock trial was making it to national competition in 2010.
“I can’t even describe how amazing it was to compete at that level,” she said. Whether they reach nationals again or not, Kline said, she’s found a mock trial “family” at UWS that always has her back.
“I have met some truly amazing and talented people through mock trial, and gotten to know people I probably never would have spoken to without mock trial,” Kline said.
Each round of competition takes about three hours. Observers should arrive in the competition room at least 15 minutes before the round begins.