U. Mock Trial team advances to Nationals

<p>Rutgers University Mock Trial Association team member Zaniah Maynor, secretary Travis Nunziato, and team captain Steph Ashley review their case before a competition.</p>

Rutgers University Mock Trial Association team member Zaniah Maynor, secretary Travis Nunziato, and team captain Steph Ashley review their case before a competition.

Stephanie Ashley delivered the closing argument in the courtroom, confident in her performance but nervous about her team’s standing. She knew the Rutgers University Mock Trial Association was up against tough competition.

In the first part Open Round Championships in Washington, D.C., the team was still behind, securing only two wins out of the six needed in order to advance to the national competition on April 13-15 in Minneapolis, said Ashley, the team captain.

“We went out there and tried our hearts out,” Ashley, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, said. “Our coach pulled us aside and said, ‘Listen, pretend like this is the championship game between the Cowboys versus [the] Giants.’ Make it or go home. … We gave it our all.”

Ashley said the competition was one of the team’s most difficult because all the teams participating were well prepared and had competed in previous tournaments.

The team nervously waited as the winners were announced. Announcers read down the list and finally, the University’s team was announced, Ashley said.

“I was so nervous,” she said. “I thought I was going to black out. This is the first time in Rutgers history that we are going to Nationals.”

The early competition season started with more than 675 college teams across the nation, and as the season progress competition narrowed — 48 college teams remain — the University is one competition closer to a national title, said Dahoud Askar, RUMTA president.

In the first competition of the semester against Swarthmore College, School of Arts and Sciences junior Rachel Holt, one of the team’s witnesses, stepped up to play the role of an attorney, and the team still succeeded in securing first place, Ashley said.

In February, the team had secured a spot in the championships by making it to the winners’ circle at the Regional Tournament in Baltimore.

“As we were waiting for the results of the case, I was more nervous than waiting for my first jury trial verdict,” said Craig Aronow, RUMTA head coach and practicing civil attorney.

Ashley said the hardest competition includes the well-known teams of University of Virginia and New York University, and the University of Virginia, which won the competition in Baltimore with a perfect score of 8-0.

In the first month of the semester, the team was given a criminal case about three friends who go out for a friend’s 21st birthday, Aronow said. Within the group, one is designated as the designated driver earlier in the night before the group goes out.

On returning home, the designated driver — who did or did not drink too much, as the defense and state will argue — gets into an accident, killing one passenger and injuring the other, Aronow said. The prosecutor charges the driver, who had already been convicted of drunk driving earlier, with murder.

After the team gets the case, the team practices twice a week gathering information as well as learning the facts of the case and law, Ashley said.

Once in the courtroom, the team is given three hours for the case, Aronow said. For the first 90 minutes, the state gets to call its witnesses and present its case, while the defense will present its case for the last hour-and-a-half. The juror then tries the case.

The case is presented four times in front of the jury, where the University team gets to act as the defense and prosecutor twice, Aronow said.

“At a real trial, things slow down. There are breaks and no one is scoring you … but with mock trial it has to be smooth, and it needs to flow and look good in a short period of time. … Because of the compressed [time], the mock trial is a more intense experience,” Aronow said.

The mock trial team is divided based on experience and skill into three separate groups, which each consist of 7 or 8 members. While members of both the A and B teams participated in the early rounds of the competition, only the A team competed in the Washington, D.C. championships. The A team is advancing to the national tournament in Minneapolis.

Although the competition is tough, Aronow said the team has the potential to win the national title.

“They can win. When Rutgers mock trial [members are] focused and committed to excelling, they are better than any other mock trial team,” Aronow said.

Askar, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, who plans to attend Harvard Law School next year, credits his success to RUMTA and head coach Aronow.

“Without the mock trial team, I don’t think I would be able to be where I am today,” he said.

Askar has been a part of the mock trial since his first year and is confident that this year will be the one that the University will win.

“Every school we faced this year was well put-together, but we could do this,” he said.

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