Saturday, April 18, 2015

2015 Mock Trial Simulation

The 13th Annual Moot Court Experience (Mock Trial Simulation) was held as part of the Daemen College Academic Festival on April 15th, 2015.  


Students from the Pre-Law Student Association (PLSA) presented a fictitious criminal case in which a police officer was charged in the non-fatal shooting an unarmed teenager. Facing charges of attempted second degree murder and first degree assault, the Defendant countered that he had behaved reasonably in using authorized non-deadly force. Students from PSC 117, Introduction to Criminal Justice, served as the jurors.
Members of the Jury await the start of the case.
As with previous mock trial competitions at Academic Festival, the teams prepared the presentation of their cases solely from witness depositions and case law provided in a case packet. Working with these raw materials, they wrote their own opening and closing statements, devised a trial strategy, and prepared direct and cross-examinations of the witnesses. The two teams prepared independently of one another, without knowing for certain their opposing counsel's strategy. The teams did not face off against one-another until the actual event, adding yet an additional element of drama.

Annabel Pietrocarlo giving the opening statement for the Prosecution.
Audience members jumped when prosecutor, Annabel Pietrocarlo, slammed the podium in an unexpected imitation of the sound of the gunshot. Later, witness Jessica Marks would provide tearful testimony, as she recounted her distress at witnessing her friend being shot.  The exchanges turned tense and fiery when Defense lawyers, Carla Hernandez and Jessica Maulucci, grilled the Prosecution's key witnesses. These fireworks were matched when prosecutors, Imani Evans and Shamella Jeffers, cross-examined the witnesses for the Defense, including veteran witness, Emily Kraft, acting as the principal of the high school where the fictional shooting took place.  

Of course, no mock trial would be complete without the duel of the experts: Jessica Todd and Rashida Salaam squared off as senior law enforcement officers testifying as to the reasonableness of the Defendant's actions in discharging his weapon.  Both teams opted to reserve their star witnesses for last. Playing the part of the teenage shooting victim, Durian Wallace, tried to convince the jury that he had been unfairly profiled by school officials as a member of a gang. The Defendant, portrayed by Nicholas Paveljack, waived his right to remain silent and took the stand to explain that he saw a gun. "You bet I was!" Nick supplied when asked on direct whether he was afraid for his own safety the night of the incident. 

The respective team leaders, Jordan Sieracki and Zahra Nayyeri bought it home, providing closing arguments that echoed themes spelled out in the opening remarks. The Prosecution argued that the Defendant, encouraged by over-zealous school officials, had unfairly stereotyped and harassed an innocent young man, then had recklessly fired at a group of innocent teenagers. The Defense, in return, implored the jury not to be swayed by anything other than the facts of the case: the teens' story, that they were not members of a local gang, was not credible; the officer had seen a gun before drawing his own weapon; no gun was found because a third teen fled the scene, taking that evidence with him.  

Emily Kraft, testifying for the Defense

Jessica Todd testifying for the Prosecution 
The result of the jury's deliberation was a mixed verdict. In deliberation, the jurors agreed that the Prosecution had not met the burden of proof on the attempted homicide charge, but found they had proven the officer's actions were not reasonable under the circumstances. Thus, they voted to acquit the Defendant of attempted murder but to convict him on the charge of first degree assault. An informal poll of the general audience reflected wide-spread agreement with the verdict. 

The presentation of the case was followed by an informal discussion. The participants answered questions about their trial strategy and what role, if any, the race of the characters, as portrayed by our actors, impacted their legal strategy (the Defendant was white, the shooting victim was African-American). The teams were challenged as to why they did not make race an even more critical factor in trying the case than they did.

Both teams indicated that they had tried to base their legal arguments on the actions of the respective characters. Still, the teams acknowledged that recent news coverage of police shootings of minority males definitely had impacted their perception of the case materials and had made them think about how explicit and implicit biases, as well as focused media attention on this issue, would potentially influence the jurors' receptivity to their arguments.

Prosecutors: Jordan Sieracki, Shamella Jeffers, Imani Evans and Annabel Pietrocarlo
"Race was hard not to think about," one of the Prosecution members responded. "When I read the case, so much of it sounded familiar and all of the stories in the news were what I thought of first.”  

Another participant shared that she had originally approached the case with a pro-police bias, reflecting her own aspiration for a career in law enforcement. "I realized that," she said, "but then I could also start to see the case from the Prosecution's side." At least one prosecutor agreed, finding all sorts of ambiguity in the case material. "We were randomly assigned sides, but there were times I thought I'd really like to argue this for the Defense."

Both teams agreed that race was definitely a factor in trying the case, and that not being able to conduct a voir dire of the jurors with respect to their attitudes about racial biases in policing was a significant disadvantage in the mock trial scenario.  

For their part, the jurors indicated that they weren't much affected by outside events or the news coverage of these events when they deliberated. "I was mostly focused on the facts and what each of the witnesses had to say happened that night," one explained. "But who knows, maybe if we had a longer time to deliberate the conversation might have went there to talk more about race." 

Defense Attorneys: Carla Hernandez, Troy Hamlin, Zahra Nayyeri, and Jessica Maulucci. 
Students from PHI 322, Philosophy of Law, were in attendance and questioned whether a single a case could ever serve as a vehicle for resolving larger, social issues such as potential race bias in policing.  "I wanted to hear more about the law beyond the instructions that the jury was given," Dr. James Moran observed. "Is the law provided by the case packet accurate and current? And how does it compare to the laws governing the use of deadly and non-deadly police force in other states?" 

Guest-Judge, Stephanie Foreman (2006, Political Science) 
Presiding over the case and the charging of the jury was guest-judge, Stephanie Foreman a 2006 graduate majoring in Political Science.  While a student at Daemen, Stephanie participated in one of the PLSA's first mock trial events. "It's really amazing to come back and see the growth of the program," she stated, "and to see how much the students still enjoy the event." Stephanie congratulated all of the students on their advocacy skills, but singled out the Prosecution as having been especially effective in her opinion.  

As the president of the Buffalo Urban League's Young Professionals (BULYP), Ms. Foreman is all about empowering a the next generation of community leaders and professionals.  "It's so great to see the students engaging with critical, timely issues. I was very impressed. Both of the teams did very well."

The Prosecution Team poses with Guest Judge, Stephanie Foreman.
Left to Right: Annabel Pietrocarlo, Jordan Sieracki, Imani Evans, Stephanie Foreman, Shamella Jeffers, Jessica Marks, Durian Wallace and Jessica Todd.
The mock trial simulation was not without the occasional hitch in procedural etiquette. Time constraints also limited the opportunity for re-direct and re-cross examinations and compressed the presentation by the Defense.  But learning to deal with the unexpected is part of the learning experience too, and both teams rolled with the punches. 

Most of the participants agreed that, even though preparing for the event was a lot of work, the mock trial simulation was a worthwhile, fun learning experience. When asked how he felt playing the part of the shooting victim for the case, Durian Wallace responded, "I loved it! I hope I can do it again next year." A few of the jurors shared the same thought, "I think I'd like to be a witness next time," one offered. "Or a lawyer. Yeah, definitely a lawyer." 

Members of the Defense Team pose with Guest-Judge Stephanie Foreman
Left to Right: Nicholas Paveljack, Jessica Maulucci, Stephanie Foreman, Zahra Nayyeri, Carla Hernandez, Emily Kraft. Not pictured: Troy Hamlin, Rashida Salaam

The PLSA will be presenting its 14th mock trial simulation at the 2016 Academic Festival and will be seeking participants. A call for participation will be distributed via campus posting and on the PLSA website in January, 2016. Students from all majors are welcome to participate and should contact the PLSA advisor, Dr. Lisa Parshall, for more information (lparshal@daemen.edu). In continuation of PLSA tradition, next year's case will be a civil matter, and we are open to suggestions as to an issue of timely relevance for consideration. 






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