Mock Trial takes home 17th place in Nationals

A volume of legal expertise, a superfluity of research, a plethora of quick thinking and a heavy dose of acting played into Trumbull High School’s success at the recent National Mock Trial Competition in Madison, Wisconsin. For the first time ever, Connecticut, represented by Trumbull High, was the top-finishing state from the Northeast. Their 17th place national finish is the highest rank a Connecticut team has ever scored in Mock Trial. The students included Mark Ambrose, Gabby Buttress, Christian DeGenova, Dante Esposito, Ashley Hallstrom, Kathy Nickson, Ross Pellenberg, Anneliese Segarra and Molly Stewart.

Head coach, social studies teacher and former attorney, Eric August, is justifiably proud of his Trumbull students.

“We went up against the eventual national champions from Washington State,” said August, “and, in my opinion, we actually beat them. After the competition, their coach said that Trumbull was the BEST team they had faced all competition. To have the coach of the eventual national champions give your team that kind of praise shows how good our program really is.”

As part of the Trumbull High Mock Trial program, students participate in annual competitions in which they take roles as attorneys and witnesses in simulated court cases. Performance is judged based on demonstrated knowledge of the law and familiarity with all details of each case.

Early in the year, the Trumbull students studied trial procedures and rules and put their knowledge to the test by competing in the Empire Mock Trial Competition in Brooklyn, New York, where they finished in a tie for sixth place among 40 national and international competitors. They also participated in an intensive Mock Trial workshop in Boston, where high school teams received instructional pointers from members of the Harvard University Mock Trial team and legal faculty.

Meanwhile, August organized four Trumbull High School Mock Trial groups to prepare for the annual Connecticut State Mock Trial competition by becoming thoroughly familiar with the case story and its description of witnesses, evidence and legal issues. After splitting into defense and prosecuting teams and choosing roles as witnesses and attorneys, the students practiced direct and cross examination and conducted several simulated trials to probe the case. A panel of professional lawyers and judges offered feedback and gave tips on how to present the case during the competition.

More than 50 Connecticut high school teams competed in five rounds of “playdown” trials between December and February, with one of Trumbull High's four teams winning the state championship in the finals held at the Connecticut Supreme Court in Hartford. This qualified Trumbull for the national competition, the first time in 31 years that Connecticut has had a back-to-back representative at the national competition. Last year they finished in 27th place in Indianapolis, Indiana.

The case being used for the national competition, a hypothetical wrongful death case, was released to each state champion team on April 1, giving all state winners just five weeks to prepare for Nationals.

“After round one at the Nationals, all teams were power-matched,” August said, “which means the better you do, the better the team you compete against. Our only losses came against Washington and California, the eventual national champs and fourth-place team. In each case we split the ballot, with at least one of three judges voting for us. That tells me that we are one of the best teams in the country, notwithstanding any number next to our name. We were basically a judge or two's ballot away from being in the National Championship.”

In addition to the team ranking, the best in Connecticut history, Stewart, a four-year member of the Trumbull program, was selected as the top overall attorney in the entire national competition. She was the only student to compete in all four rounds as an attorney and to be selected as the leading attorney in all four trials. “Molly has been an exceptional member of the Mock Trial program for four years,” said August. “We are not where we are today as a team without her. This is a fitting way for her to end her career at Trumbull High.”

In addition to Stewart, Segarra won an award for Top Witness at the National Competition. Esposito was recognized with an Outstanding Attorney Performance award; Hallstrom and Pellenberg earned Outstanding Witness Performance awards.

“I couldn't be prouder,” raved August when the group returned to town. “We set out with a goal this year to be better than last year, and we were. We finished 10 spots higher, won two awards, had the best overall ranked attorney in the competition and won the Northeast. It was a great year. The kids deserve every bit of praise and congratulations they get. They worked so hard, and I'm so proud of them.”

In addition to essential school funding, the Mock Trial team received supplemental financial support from the Trumbull Academic Challenge for Excellence (ACE) Foundation, the Town of Trumbull Business-Education Initiative (BEI), and several attorney benefactors and other contributors, as well as collaboration with Old Towne Restaurant to conduct an evening fund-raiser.

Assistant coaches Leslie Bradshaw and Barbara Brown worked closely with the students, while a host of local attorneys and others volunteered their time to help the students prepare their legal arguments in the case. Participating panel members included Bruce Elstein, Audrey Felsen, Peter Stein, Tom Tesoro, John Walkley, Steve Wright and Russell Zentner, as well as Mark Broder, William Brown, Nick D'Agosto, Steve Elbaum, Steve Howe, Jim Nugent, Frank Riccio II, Judge T.R. Rowe, and State Representative Dave Rutigliano.

August praised those in the community who contributed so much to the team’s success. He said, “We wouldn't have been nearly as successful without their vital assistance throughout the year.”