Updated: Oct 20, 2021
A mock trial is essentially what it sounds like; it’s a simulation of a trial in an American court in which two sides hash it out, fighting for either a guilty or an innocent verdict. High school and college students participate as attorneys and witnesses in mock trials in order to learn about what a court of law is like while furthering their knowledge in law, public speaking, rhetoric, critical thinking, and more. It’s a popular co-curricular activity for students across America and in other countries as well. Mock trial tournaments are held around the world, the most notable being the National Championship Tournament hosted by the American Mock Trial Association.
Just like in real life, trials follow the adversarial system in which there are two sides trying to prove that a defendant is either guilty or innocent. In a criminal trial, these sides are the prosecution and the defense. In a civil trial, these sides are the plaintiff and the defense. An additional difference between criminal and civil court is that the minimum bar that must be met differs. For criminal trials, proof must be established beyond a reasonable doubt whereas, for civil trials, liability must only be proven by a preponderance of the evidence.
Mock trials usually last about 3 hours and are generally structured as such: opening statements, P witness 1 (direct examination by P, cross-examination by D*), P witness 2*, D witness 1 (direct examination by D, cross-examination by P*), D witness 2*, and finally, closing arguments (sometimes with time allotted for prosecution/plaintiff ending rebuttal). In mock trials, the prosecution/plaintiff-side goes first with procedures. While this is the traditional structure of a mock trial, it should be noted that different trials have a varying number of witnesses and may have slight differences in timing with the structural components. Below is a quick overview of what each part of a mock trial looks like:
Opening statements are introductions to the case and the laws pertaining to it. An attorney from each side will tell the story of the case in a way that benefits them. The opening statements give the jury members their first impression of what the case is about. They will usually have the following components: an introduction with a theme, explanation of relevant laws, narrative or storyline of the case, a brief introduction to the evidence/witnesses that the side will present in the trial, and a concluding remark.
Witnesses in trials are generally grouped into three categories: a lay witness is a witness with a personal connection to someone who is a major part of the case (the mother of the victim, the brother of the defendant, etc.), an expert witness is someone whose profession allows them more nuanced insight to the case (mortician, forensics scientist, criminal psychologist, firefighter, etc.), and a character witness is usually someone like an eyewitness who something happens (the teller at a bank, someone who heard gunshots and saw someone running away from the scene of the crime, etc.). Each witness is used by one side or the other to prove a point about the case. In direct examinations, one side is asking their own witness rehearsed questions in order to let them provide the point about the case that they were brought to court to show. During cross-examinations, the opposing counsel is grilling a witness in order to try to undermine their credibility or otherwise disrupt the point that the witness made about the case.
In the closing arguments, attorneys revisit any theme they may have established during the case and walk through the trial again while reinforcing their points. A good closing argument should definitely feel cohesive of the trial and touch on the points made while appealing to ethos, pathos, and logos in each attorney’s best attempt to sway the jury. In most trials, the prosecution will give a closing, the defense will follow with their closing, and then the prosecution can use the remaining time they have left to give a rebuttal closing argument. In this last part of the trial, attorneys ask the jury members to rule in their side’s favor.
Lastly, it’s important to keep in mind that like all games and competitions, battles in court have rules that each side must abide by. These rules of evidence are often extremely lengthy but a few common objections that are made in court are as follows: hearsay, speculation, badgering the witness, and lack of foundation. For more info on how each step of a mock trial works and a more in-depth look at what objections are, stay tuned for more posts from LACAH!
LACAH is an abbreviation for the Law Association for Crimes Across History. It’s a student-led organization that hosts 2 mock trial tournaments a year. LACAH is based in Shanghai, China, and hosts in-person competitions in Shanghai but has participants zooming in from all over the world! What makes LACAH unique is that instead of the usual fictional mock trial cases, we create case files based on historical events for a fun, applied learning experience. To learn more or see how you can get involved, check out our website: https://www.lacah.net/