I Survived Mock Trial

For several years, I regarded the coming of Challenge B with fear and trembling because of one thing: Mock Trial. I had never participated in any form of debate during my school years, so it was a vast unknown. (Well, not entirely unknown, but I am not sure my fascination with courtroom dramas on television counts as courtroom experience.) I was not sure I could help my son with Mock Trial in any constructive way. Yet I concealed my fears from him, took a deep breath, and took the plunge.

In every level of Challenge, there are certain books that parents must read with their children, and there are certain projects with which we must be fully engaged. I had already identified Mock Trial as one of these projects, so I rose early one morning to read through my son’s notebook. At least I would not be completely ignorant. What I found was truly fascinating—witness statements, police reports, potential objections, and precedents from prior case law. However, the facts did not really help. It is the job of the students to comb through the evidence and create a case. The tutor and parents are to help them think about the process, not to do their work for them. I now had information, but I did not have a clear idea of how to help.

Ask good questions about Mock Trial

On the morning the defense team was scheduled to meet in our home, I had a revelation. I could help the same way I help in many other subjects in which I am not an expert, I can ask good questions. For the first part of the meeting, I simply listened as they read their opening statement and began to question their witnesses. As we prepared to run through the case, I suggested they look at the order of the trial so that they would be ready to speak in the actual courtroom. For the first time in 13 weeks, my son seemed to be really and truly thinking about the meaning behind the order of the trial. He looked up from the notebook and said, “Hey! How come the prosecution gets to go first and last? That gives them an unfair advantage.”

Instead of responding, I asked a question.

Mom:                   “What’s the job of the prosecution?”

Students:    “Um, to prove that she is guilty?”

Mom:                   “That’s right. Now, what’s the job of the defense?”

Students:    “To prove that she’s innocent.”

Mom:          “No, remember, in America she is presumed innocent until proven guilty. What does your team have to do?”

Students:    “Oh, yeah, our tutor said our job is to create reasonable doubt of her guilt.”

Mom:          “Yes. The prosecution has the burden of proof which is why they go first and last.”

Reflect on the Bill of Rights

After this conversation, I realized how little they knew about the American justice system, so I decided to back up, and I asked them to spend some time reflecting on the Bill of Rights. Since most of them had been in Foundations for a long time, this proved easy. We chanted the ten rights they had memorized, and I asked, “How many of those pertain to our rights in the criminal justice system?” They took a minute to count and realized that fully half of the rights listed in the Bill of Rights pertain to the rights of the accused: #4 Warrants, #5 Self-Incrimination, #6 Speedy Trial, #7 Jury, #8 Cruel and Unusual Punishment.

Students:    “Why did they put so much stuff about trials in the Bill of Rights?”

Mom:           “When was the Bill of Rights written?”

Students:    “At the same time as the Constitution, after the American Revolution.”

Mom:          “Right. What kind of government had these people just overthrown?”

Students:    “A monarchy.”

Mom:          “Yes. What kinds of rights do you think the accused have under an absolute monarchy?”

Now we were getting somewhere. In the course of this casual and unplanned conversation, we had hit upon one of the Five Common Topics of Invention—circumstance. Before we can understand any issue, we must ask the questions, “What else was going on? What happened before? What was happening in the rest of the world?” Now the students understood the significance of their assignment, the importance of upholding justice in our nation.

Compare the roles in the trial to the parts of an essay

Having established the significance of the exercise, we were ready to launch into the particulars. I began to see that their job during the trial was not so very different from writing a persuasive essay—something I know a bit about—so we began to talk about how their different roles were like the parts of an essay. The opening statement is similar to the opening paragraph with the dramatic opener, the background information, and the thesis (the reason the jury should find the defendant not guilty). Questioning the witnesses is similar to the body paragraphs in which you offer proofs of your thesis. Finally, the closing statement is similar to the conclusion of the essay, in which you repeat your thesis and proofs, and appeal to the audience to act upon their newfound knowledge.

Armed with this analogy, they could spend the rest of the morning working together to make sure their different roles flowed together into one coherent story. They worked long hours and they each learned how to contribute to the process until their team functioned in unison.

Think about what was learned from Mock Trial

The next day, I asked my son to think about what he learned. “I learned how to ask good questions and to think on my feet. Mostly, though, I learned about our justice system—how it works and why it is so important.” These are good lessons, indeed, and these young people are equipped to ensure that our country continues to offer “liberty and justice for all.”

Originally posted by Jennifer Courtney on Tuesday, 15 May, 2013. Updated by Terri Dunseath.




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