Forty people gathered at the Riley County Courthouse in downtown Manhattan on Saturday morning as the K-State Mock Trial team staged its first-ever public exhibition.
Thirteen team members from the Pre-Law club split into two groups and argued the fictional case of Danny Dawson, a young man charged with murder and driving while intoxicated in the death of a young woman.
The primary purpose of the club is to develop trial attorney skills but participation is open to anyone regardless of major or career aspirations.
District Magistrate Judge Sheila Hochhauser presided over the opposing counsels with 20-plus years of legal experience. It was three on three, with Sam Cox, junior in sociology, leading the defense team and Josh Wilson, sophomore in communication studies, leading the prosecution. The rest of the club played either a witness or a member of the jury.
Several rules governed play, including team selection — namely that some members wouldn’t know the role they were going to play until just before the trial began.
Therefore, it was imperative that each team member was well versed on every aspect of the case. Aishah Khursheed, senior in communication studies, was selected to play an important witness.
“My job was to be prepared for questions based on an affidavit of information,” Khursheed said. “But it was a little easier [than counsel] since there isn’t as much pressure.”
The two sides battled for over three hours, lobbing objections and dodging traps laid by the opposition, all the while pushing their respective positions. By noon the dust had settled and the jury emerged with their decision: guilty of DUI, not guilty of murder.
Following the verdict, Hochhauser commended everyone for their efforts. She was particularly impressed by several of the witnesses, Bondy Kaye and Haley Claxton, whose clarity and knowledge of the facts surrounding the case greatly facilitated the pace and development of the trial.
Typically, former club members or coaches will serve as judge, but Hochhauser brought a high level of expertise from her professional experience, which made the case an in-depth learning experience for the students.
She was in general agreement with the decision of the jury.
“I would have found him not guilty because there was too much doubt,” Hochhauser said.
Although Hochhauser was somewhat skeptical that “murder one” could be successfully argued in this case, since it implies “almost a complete disregard for human life,” the club will analyze their performance and see if they can strengthen the prosecution’s position heading into next weekend’s regional tournament at Washburn University in Topeka.
Judge Hochhauser said she was open to future collaboration between the club and the Riley County Courthouse.
“I would be interested,” she said. “I enjoyed the experience.”
Their efforts reflected nearly six months of preparation under close coaching from three members of the legal community. Ben Long, K-State graduate and Olathe attorney, has teamed up with former Washburn classmate and local attorney Britain Stites and local paralegal Nikki Marcotte, another K-State grad who helped found the club in 2008.
I think we’re a force to be reckoned with,” said Long proudly.
When asked about his ambitions for the club, he said, “to place at nationals.”
Stites also mentioned that he has enjoyed being a teacher for the students and recognized the value of learning as much as possible.
“There is a real joy in education,” he said.
The club is making final preparations before visiting Topeka next weekend to compete in the prestigious American Mock Trial Association Regional Tournament. The team still carries momentum generated three years ago when, under the guidance of team advisor Dr. LeAnn Brazeal, several students took home honors such as Most Outstanding Lawyer and Most Outstanding Witness.
The team competing next weekend will include Cox; Wilson; Haley Claxton, sophomore in history; Brandon Katt, junior in political science; Bondy Kaye, junior in psychology; Terrence Ogren, sophomore in business administration; and Torrey Peterson, sophomore in political science. Top teams advance to the next round March 16-18 in St. Louis.
Anyone interested in joining the team or attending tournaments should contact club president Bondy Kaye at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out the K-State Mock Trial Facebook page.