Mock Trial usually affords students the opportunity to feel like Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men” or Gregory Peck in “To Kill A Mockingbird.”
They can dress in their finest outfits, command the courtroom and make the case for or against the defendant in the chosen case for that particular year. There may not be quite as much drama as the aforementioned stories, but the season represents valuable public speaking experience, according to Johnston High School coach Anna Herbert.
In her fifth year coaching the squad, Herbert acknowledged that the all-virtual setup was a bit challenging and deprived players of the chance to take the trip to a real courthouse.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen. We thought that we actually weren’t going to be able to participate, but luckily the Rhode Island mock trial organization decided to do it virtually,” Herbert said. “We have a lot of students who are actually distance learners. Because it was virtual, we were able to form a team together, and we practiced virtually throughout the entire season and all our trials were virtual as well through Zoom meetings.”
Not everything was different, though, as attorneys presented their cases to an actual judge, as they do during a regular season. Players even had the opportunity to learn from attorney/coach and Johnston Municipal Court Judge Jacqueline Grasso.
While the pandemic “took away the excitement” of presenting the case in person, players were able to adjust and help JHS finish second in the state going into the postseason.
“We told them it was [a real judge], but I don’t know that they realized the significance of it,” Herbert said. “It took away from some of the things about moving around the courtroom and things like that. That’s something that – especially with the new students that are joining the team this year – hopefully it will have a chance to work out next year.”
Herbert encouraged the team not to take shortcuts despite having access to opening and closing statements on their screen. She urged them to memorize their prepared remarks. She said it was “tempting” for kids to have those word documents open, but their extra preparation and dedication is what helped them finish ahead of most other teams in the state.
“It wasn’t as evident in front of everybody whether they were reading or not, but I think that was our strength if anything this season, compared to some of the other teams,” Herbert said. “That’s one of the things that I have really pushed for and it was evident to the performance judges that our kids were able to do it from memory rather than reading, whereas other schools appeared to be reading some of their material.”
This year’s case was close to home, as it revolved around a breaking and entering case that resulted in murder by COVID-19. JHS had to present both sides of the issue in different matches.
After finishing second in the state, the Panthers qualified for the playoffs and advanced all the way to the semifinals. They suffered a difficult loss in that round, falling by only seven-tenths of a point. It was a tough loss, Herbert said, but she watched her players “gain their confidence” throughout the season.
“I often love to see the kids come in to the club shy and quiet and when they get to perform during the trials, you can see them just have this level of confidence emerge,” Herbert said. “Just the public speaking aspect of it, there was one girl just to give an example. She’s a senior now, but there was one girl, her freshman and sophomore year, whenever she played a witness and she was being crossed, her anxiety level, almost during practices, caused her to cry because she felt so anxious of being crossed. It is tense. On the stand, with practice, she became a little bit more comfortable.”
Now that student is an attorney and her “confidence level is beyond what it was when she first started,” Herbert said.
As unusual as the campaign was, Herbert said the player did a “tremendous job” presenting the case. She said they have already met to strategize about winning it all next year.
“Their dedication was there, the level of participation, they were willing to practice endless hours throughout the entire season and it paid off in the end,” Herbert said. “We didn’t make it to the very, very end, but this is the furthest that Johnston High School has made it, so right now the kids are already talking and planning on making it to the end next year.”