Editor’s note: Alexander Thompson is an assistant news editor at The Tufts Daily. Alexander was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.
Tufts Mock Trial’s A team placed second in its division at the American Mock Trial Association (AMTA) National Championship Tournament. The tournament took place over Zoom from April 16 to April 18.
This second-place win finished off a season that Tufts Mock Trial co-president and A team co-captain Bennett Demksy described as one of the strongest seasons in Tufts Mock Trial history. According to Demsky, the team placed better in tournaments than it had in previous seasons and achieved a higher number of individual awards than ever before.
Tufts Mock Trial co-president and co-captain of the B team, Celina Vidal, explained how the success of this season is a testament to the strength of Tufts Mock Trial overall.
“We really pride ourselves on being a program [that’s] really good across the board. Our C team qualified out of regionals … and our B team got so close [to the National Championship Tournament],” Vidal, a senior, said. “We’re just a super strong program and I’m excited that we have four really competitive teams.”
In February, three of the four Tufts Mock Trial teams qualified out of AMTA’s Regional Tournament, though only two teams per school are allowed to advance to the next round. Out of regionals, Tufts Mock Trial’s A and B teams competed in AMTA’s Opening Round Championship Series Tournament (ORCS) — the qualifying tournament for the National Championship Tournament. The B team placed first at its Regionals tournament and nearly qualified for the National Championship at ORCS, placing seventh, just below the sixth place finish that would’ve allowed the team to advance to the next round. The A team was undefeated at both the Regional Tournament and ORCS, according to Demsky and Vidal.
At the National Championship Tournament, the A team collected two individual awards. Demsky won a 29-rank All-American Attorney award as a defense attorney and Alexander Thompson, a junior, received a 35-rank All-American Witness award.
The tournament was not only Tufts Mock Trial’s most successful finish at nationals, but also the most difficult. The difficulty of a collegiate mock trial team’s National Championship Tournament schedule is determined by its Combined Strength score, which illustrates how strong a specific team’s opponents were throughout the tournament. According to their Twitter, Tufts Mock Trial ended with a CS score of 43 — the highest at the tournament and the highest of any team at the National Championship Tournament in the past decade. Tufts Mock Trial competed against the 12th-place team, the eighth-place team, the third-place team and the tournament’s National Champions, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Demsky noted that having both a strong season and a successful run at nationals was particularly rewarding given the uncertainty of the past year due to COVID-19.
“In a year where basically everything got canceled, and a lot of things people care about went away, we were able to build a community,” Demsky, a junior, said. “And enormous credit to the folks of the American Mock Trial Association and the entire mock trial community for making sure the activity can still run completely on Zoom.”
Throughout the academic year, collegiate mock trial teams had to remain flexible, as the legal world tried to figure out how to adapt both mock trials and real-life trials to a virtual format.
Oliver Marsden, a fifth-year combined degree student and co-captain of Tufts Mock Trial’s A team, explained that much of the fall season was spent testing out new methods of presentation over Zoom, before the American Mock Trial Association eventually solidified guidelines about what teams could, or couldn’t, do during the spring season.
“Everything was evolving in the fall, really fast, faster than you could keep tabs on because everyone was trying out different things to try to get an edge,” Marsden said. “And then the rules started coming in the spring with ‘Okay, you can’t use any other presentation format than PowerPoint because it might give you a little bit more of an advantage.’”
Vidal explained that Tufts Mock Trial found it challenging at first to figure out how to position themselves on Zoom.
“We normally stand in front of the witness when we’re talking to them, so we had to figure out, ‘Should we sit down in front of the camera, should we stand up,’ but also for our whole witness piece, because that’s acting … you just don’t get the same effect as having someone walk into the courtroom with a certain persona,” Vidal said.
Despite the setbacks and confusion spurred by conducting trials virtually, the new format allowed collegiate mock trial teams to utilize backgrounds and costumes that could reflect characters’ unique personality traits and skill sets, which wouldn’t normally be allowed in an in-person courtroom setup.
“Something that was actually really helpful with Zoom was we were able to use PowerPoint visual aids during the trial that we wouldn’t have been able to use otherwise,” Vidal said.
Tufts Mock Trial capitalized on these new creative formats, using engaging props, furnishings, PowerPoints and outfits to bring the National Championship tournament case — a landlord-tenant dispute over a bed bug infestation — to life.
For this case, two of Tufts Mock Trial’s witnesses were Blaine Crawford, an exterminator with a Boston accent, who was portrayed by Thompson as well as a fastidious German building manager portrayed by Will Porter, a senior.
Marsden explained that during the trial, Porter spoke in front of a set adorned with modern, minimalistic decor, to show that this witness wanted “everything set up in a really particular way.”
In order to bring expert witness Blaine Crawford to life, Thompson dressed in an exterminator outfit and used an actual bed to show the courtroom how to properly inspect a bed for bed bugs.
Marsden described some of the factors that play into developing effective performances.
“In practice, it is a lot about trying to maximize your witnesses to make sure that they are [as] engaging as possible, and then on the attorney’s side it’s about trying to complement your witnesses as best as you can, and trying to be engaging as well, so … in a lot of ways it’s your inflection … how articulate can you sound and how much can you really drive home your point,” Marsden said.
One of the A team’s attorneys was Margaret Veglahn, a first-year. Veglahn explained that joining the team during such an unprecedented year was a unique experience for her.
“It was almost easier to come in as a freshman because everybody else sort of had to reprogram their mock trial brains from in person to Zoom,” Veglahn said.
Looking back over the year, Veglahn feels that Tufts Mock Trial has been a great outlet both academically and socially.
“I really love it and I feel really grateful that this team is so willing to help the new people,” Veglahn said. “I’ve met a bunch of my best friends and it’s really fun to compete with people that you love and it’s also fun to win, and we get to do both of those things.”
Marsden, who is also the education director of Tufts Mock Trial, noted how well the first-years adjusted to the program.
“Education Director really took on a whole different meaning [this year] because we were trying to figure out how to do mock trial over Zoom,” Marsden said. “I was really impressed with how well the first-years were just so dedicated to diving into everything.”
Adding to the challenge of training first-years during such a unique year, Tufts Mock Trial is completely student-run, differing from other collegiate mock trial teams who have the aid of a mock trial coach.
“A lot of people have lawyers and teams of law students coaching the program,” Marsden said. “But we’re student-run and that’s been a really awesome experience to feel like, ‘Wow, even though these other teams have all the resources, and all the coaching staff in the world, sometimes a couple of Jumbos’ creativity can do better.’”