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Mock trial team goes to court

The Cathedral of Learning bore witness to the civil and criminal trials of multiple defendants this weekend. Among the defendants, lawyers, and witnesses were 18 Carnegie Mellon students — the members of the mock trial team.

Carnegie Mellon Mock Trial came in fifth place out of 23 teams at the second annual Steel City Invitational, hosted by the University of Pittsburgh. The event invited schools nationwide to partake in a four-round, two-day competition.

In addition, two individual team members—Sudeep Paul and Andrew Robb—received the Attorney Award and Best Witness Award, respectively.

The University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon faced over 15 competitors, including teams from Georgetown University, the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, and Cornell University.

The invitational was one of many in the year’s season that put Carnegie Mellon up against its national competitors, Michigan being one of its most consistent threats.

However, Carnegie Mellon has managed to set itself apart from its competitors.

A trademark of the Carnegie Mellon team is its existence as a completely student-run organization. Unlike universities such as Georgetown and the University of Michigan, the team does not have a faculty coach or an associated law school.

Since Carnegie Mellon lacks a pre-law program, the 18 members of mock trial come from all different colleges and majors.

“We have been practicing for three hours every night this week,” said Anand Durvasula, senior economics major and mock trial president. “What many people don’t realize is how much memorization is involved in mock trial. We have to know everything about our cases.”

Each case is just so intense, he added, none without romance, jealousy, and drama. Past cases have included a tennis professional hit in the shoulder in a road rage attack and criminal cases complicated by extramarital affairs.

To many students not involved with mock trial, the activities of the team can be easily misunderstood.

“I didn’t know the mock trial team had such awesome cases,” said Lauren Taglieri, a sophomore information systems major “I thought a lot of mock trial was wearing suits and looking up laws, not as creative and interesting as it seems to be.”

The cases alternate each year between civil and criminal.

This year’s case is that of a defendant stabbing his social worker and infecting her with AIDS. The defendant has plead guilty; now, the team’s job is to argue for the strictest or most lenient punishment, depending on whether it is assigned to the defense or prosecution.

“We don’t know what side we have to argue until right before the competition round, so we have to be prepared for either side with all our witnesses and lawyers,” said Akshaya Jha, a junior economics and statistics double major and mock trial treasurer.

Carnegie Mellon’s mock trial team consists of two sub-teams, each composed of nine students. These teams each compete in one round of competition on both of the days of a two-day competition.

“Some years, we have intense inner-team rivalry, but this year we all seem to work together really well,” Durvasula said.

At last year’s invitational, two of the team’s lawyers took home awards for outstanding performance.

However, for the Carnegie Mellon team, some of the most memorable moments are not just victories.

“My favorite times are when a witness says something completely wrong that just ends in a lawyer’s ridiculous questions that have nothing to do with the case,” Jha said.

Everyone always tries to act professional, he added, even if he or she trips while walking away or is unable to hold in his or her laughter.

“The idea is not supposed to be simulating of an actual court case,” Durvasula said. “Our cases are memorized, so it’s really about one-third legal knowledge, one-third acting, and one-third presentation.”

The competitions are held in classrooms and there is no actual gavel for the judge, Durvasula added.

However, the intensity of mock trial competitions is no laughing matter.

There are a number of strict rules that must be followed in the classroom.

Something as small as a piece of paper on a desk could make a team lose points, as written notes and aids are strictly forbidden — memorization is the only option.

In addition to dressing the part, witnesses, lawyers, and defendants must follow the guidelines of when to stand, sit, and speak in the course of the trial.

While strict, Jha and Durvasula said the restrictions are well worth it.

“It really is rewarding,” said Jha. “You meet so many different people, and in terms of competitive public speaking at Carnegie Mellon, we’re the only show in town.”

Durvasula commented on the many leadership opportunities available on the team. In addition to a five-student executive board, there are two captains on each team.

“It’s great that we all love it too,” Durvasula added. “To spend so much time on something, you have to really enjoy doing it.”

The Carnegie Mellon team has won several regional and national distinctions.

Although invitationals are held throughout the year, the regional competition determines which teams will continue on to nationals. Last year, three Carnegie Mellon students won witness awards at regionals and one of Carnegie Mellon’s two teams made it to nationals.

This year’s regional competition will be held in February. One team will compete in Baltimore; the other will travel to Cincinnati to compete.