The verdict is in

Feature story on the Rhodes College mock trial team for Rhodes Magazine

Summer 2013

Society has always had a fascination with the law and legal proceedings. It is the stuff of literature and theatre, the big screen as well as prime time television. Many dream of becoming a lawyer and protecting the poor and downtrodden from certain injustice, of becoming Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, Jimmy Stewart′s Mr. Smith filibustering Congress, or Perry Mason calling a surprise witness at the last minute. But how many see that dream fulfilled? How many, in the parlance of the court, may approach the bench?

At Rhodes College, a select group of students learn what it might be like to sit in a paneled courtroom, to pace in front of a jury, and to “Object!” when the time is right. And they′re doing so in competition that puts them on a par with the best orators from the country′s most prestigious institutions of higher learning.

While mock trial has long been used in law schools as a way to ready students for their careers, the high school program was only founded in 1983, at Drake University in Iowa. Two years later, the college game was created and with it the American Mock Trial Association (AMTA). It was two years after that, in 1987, that Dr. Marcus Pohlmann, a professor of political science and new to Rhodes at the time, received a postcard asking if he had any students interested in participating. Not knowing just what it was, he laughs now, “I grabbed six kids out of my constitutional law class. We had one session with an attorney … and we went up to Iowa and competed in the national tournament.”

From that meager start has grown a program that regularly competes on a level with Harvard, Columbia, Princeton and Yale. And, more often than not, betters such schools. Says Pohlman, “We have arguably been, over time, the most successful mock trial program in the country.”

Award-Winning Track Record

Just this past spring, Rhodes had its best national tournament finish in 12 years as the A Team was national runner-up, winning its 24-team flight but losing to Florida State University in the championship round. Rhodes will be rated second in the nation when tournaments resume in the next school year. Three Rhodes students—Matthew Jehl ′13, Pauline Dyer ′13, and Matthew Niegos ′14—were named All-Americans. Jehl and Niegos received All-Amerian Attorney awards, while Dyer earned All-American Witness honors.

Each academic year, AMTA releases a case problem to be used by all competitors, and then releases case updates throughout the competition season. Some mock trial cases are taken from actual court cases, while others are written specifically for competition by contributors. During a trial there are three witnesses and three attorneys, opening statements, witness direct examinations and cross examinations, and closing arguments. Each aspect is timed and scoring is based on knowledge of the rules, ability to argue, and convincing portrayals. “It′s a very condensed version of a trial,” Pohlmann says, where “the plaintiff or prosecution is trying to meet a burden of proof with three witnesses in 25 minutes.”

Rhodes carries four teams. In a typical year, 50 hopefuls start out each fall with half returning from previous years and half being new. Those new to the program will start with Trial Procedures, a class born from mock trial and worth four credit hours. In-class trials are conducted as a way to evaluate students for the course as well as to try out possible competitors.

“As it usually plays out, of the new kids, the ones that just don′t enjoy it or that can sense that they′re not particularly good at it will opt out,” Pohlmann says. “It′s pretty rare that we actually cut somebody who wants to continue.”

By the middle of October, the class comes to an end, and those still standing are ready for the ensuing invitational season. Four “invitational teams” work through three invitational tournaments, followed by a reconstitution of those teams. The reconstituted “regional teams” then attend one last tune-up invitational tournament in January. In February, the AMTA competition begins with 24 Regional Tournaments, and, from those, only the top two of the four Rhodes teams can move on to qualify for the Opening Rounds Championship Series, which begins in March. Students still on the team in the spring will earn one credit hour, which can be repeated up to four times. “The most you can get in the time you′re here is two full course credits for all that work, so it is an extracurricular for the most part,” says Pohlmann.

Out of more than 500 teams from more than 350 universities and colleges that enter the AMTA competition, only 48 will advance to the National Championship Tournament. Rhodes has qualified for the national tournament every year for 27 years, including eight trips to the final round and four national championships. Rhodes is one of the only colleges with such a record, the rest being universities; the only school with more national championships is the University of Maryland. Such success and consistency is a direct reflection on the commitment of Rhodes.

“I feel like we′re funded well by the college so as to be competitive at the high end,” Pohlmann says. “And we′ve actually had some generous contributions from the parents of a couple of the kids that have competed for us. There has been some other private money that′s come through as well.” . . . (read more)