Merrill’s Legal Eagles Head to State Mock Trial

Student in mock trial contest

A Merrill Middle School student makes her case at the Iowa Bar Association’s 2016 Mock Trial Competition.

This year marks the 33rd annual mock trials sponsored by the Iowa State Bar Association and two teams, the Blue and the Green, from Merrill Middle School advanced to the middle school state tournament this week at the Iowa Events Center.

The event is designed to introduce students to the legal system in a challenging, academic competition with emphases on research, presentation, and teamwork.

Student consciousness about contemporary public issues is raised and partnerships are forged with community legal professionals since lawyers and judges from communities throughout Iowa contribute their time as coaches and judges at the tournaments.

More than 2,000 students participate statewide so the competitive aspect is real and fierce.

That explains why the Merrill teams began practicing every Wednesday as soon as the school year began. Teams are limited to 10 members on a first come, first served basis and the program has become so popular at Merrill that there are waiting lists now.

Everyone argues one side or the other of the same real-life case. The gist of this year’s is a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the estate of a man who was killed on a commercial obstacle course. Assumed risk or gross negligence? Depends on who’s more convincing.

Prepping for Round Two on tables along the mezzanine outside of the ad hoc courtrooms at Hy-Vee Hall Tuesday morning, the Merrill legal eagles’ body language was looser than their lawyerly suits and tightly coifed hair. But their laughter was the nervous sort. They’ve come a long way this fall and had to advance through a regional round to qualify for the state tournament. If the time they’ve put in was billable hours they’d have earned a down payment on law school so you better believe the pretrial giggles gave way to game faces when court convened.

Opposing teams mingled briefly, shaking hands and wishing one another good luck without knowing which school their adversaries represented. Matches are blind draws to ensure that judges aren’t faced with conflicts of interest. At a glance the teams are indistinguishable because everyone sports the same basic uniform; knotted ties and a judicial shade of blue.

Coaches assign roles for what resembles a cross between a school drama production and an interscholastic sports contest. Somebody delivers the opening statement, others testify as witnesses and the case plays out. Exhibits are submitted, objections are lodged, benches are approached and judges offer rulings and points of order. Then it’s time for the closers, like the 9th inning of a tight ballgame.

“If it please the court…” began Maggie McKinney’s opening statement for the Merrill Greens who were arguing for the defense, and there seemed to be no ifs about it, judging by the judges’ approving gazes and nods. Later, Maggie’s teammate and closer Nicholas Jackson delivered a statement that earned him an Outstanding Attorney award. Alas, it wasn’t enough to win the day and advance his team to the state semifinals. The Blues didn’t make it either. But they were recognized as one of three teams worthy of the Judge Anthony Critelli Award for Sportsmanship, Civility and Courtroom Decorum. The Merrill Blues also finished 9th overall.

All in all, not a bad day in court for the Merrill barristers. And definitely not their last.

Video from the Middle School Mock Trial Contest

Photos from the Middle School Mock Trial Contest

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