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Crafting a case


At 8:30 p.m. Feb. 24, The Urbandale mock trial team gathered at their high school to practice for the upcoming Iowa State Bar Association Mock Trial competition March 1, 2 and 4. The students sporadically entered the classroom and took their seats while chatting, eating candy and using their cell phones to track down errant teammates.

Their coach, R. Scott Johnson, moved around the room consulting with individual students about lines of questioning, possible objections, and points of their opening and closing arguments. Gradually they settled down and focused their attention on the task at hand: building a strong case.

In mock trial competitions, teams of eight to 10 students argue a court case. They must be prepared to serve both the prosecution and the defense, taking on roles as attorneys and witnesses. The objectives of mock trials are to help students develop better listening, speaking, writing, reading and analytical skills and help them understand the judicial system.   This year, the case is The State Iowa vs. Andre Dumas, and the fictional Dumas is accused of committing murder in the first degree, killing Maxim DeMieux in the course of a fencing match.

The students divide tasks, deciding who will give the opening statement, the direct examination, the cross examination and the closing argument. They must pore over evidence, medical examiners’ reports and witness statements. Those who serve as witnesses become improvisational actors. They must memorize prepared statements and use that information to answer whatever questions the attorneys ask. Not only do the mock trial competitors have to craft a strong case, but they also must relay the information within strict time limits or face scoring penalties.

Johnson, an attorney at McKee, Voorhees & Sease, has been a mock trial coach for three years. He says he didn’t participate in mock trial as a teenager in Newton, “but I should have.” The biggest challenges are to keep the team organized as the students learn their roles and the process, and to schedule rehearsals around Johnson’s work the myriad activities of his charges. During a recent rehearsal, half an hour was eaten in an attempt to set up a practice. The students heatedly negotiated a time to meet that weekend, only to have one student proclaim, “I have to work then.” The statement was met by a chorus of groans. Another time was proposed and a student piped up, “I have a tutoring session.” Groans erupted again.

“When I started coaching, I was surprised by their energy,” Johnson said. “They have lots of activities, and we meet late in the day but they’re still going strong.”

Johnson grew up listing to his father, a Jasper County prosecutor, in court. He got an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering from Iowa State University and a law degree from Drake University. Patent law has given him a chance to apply his interests in science and law. He father inspired him to enter the legal profession, and now he is helping to inspire the next generation of lawyers.

Urbandale senior Julia Wignall started participating in mock trial in seventh grade.

“I thought it would be cool to be a lawyer,” she said. “In mock trial, I’ve learned how to be a lawyer, how to examine things on a deeper level and how to work as a team.”

She plans to attend the University of Northern Iowa in communications and public relations and is considering law school after that. She says Johnson is a good coach, talented at helping them understand the legal system.

This is Will Wilkinson’s second year in mock trial. He serves as a witness for the state and an attorney for the defense.

“I’m not an analytical person, but for mock trial, I have to pay attention to detail and set up my case to be as persuasive as possible,” he said. “I have to be meticulous; it’s a good exercise.”  

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