The Cornell Mock Trial Association took home a top 20 finish from the American Mock Trial Association National Championships in Des Moines this weekend, where the team competed among the nation’s top 64 teams.
Miami University of Ohio claimed victory in the championship round, beating out favorites Rhodes College and last year’s champion, the University of Maryland at College Park. Cornell’s team, the higher ranked of the University’s two teams after February’s qualifying tournament, finished the competition with a 3-5 record.
“I was really proud of everyone on the team,” said Coach David Koeppel ’98.
Although the team members had hoped to better their best showing — after a fourth place finish at the 1999 National Championships — the members came away with not only a successful overall showing, but an amazing experience competing against the College Park team in the first round, according to Keith Becker ’01, team captain and president of the Mock Trial Association.
“This was our chance to see what we’re really made of,” Becker said.
Pitted first against the defending champions, Cornell fought against the possibility of intimidation. The Maryland trial ultimately resulted in a split decision between the two judges, a victory for Cornell that set the tone for the remainder of the tournament.
“After the Maryland trial, several teams were talking about Cornell being the team to beat,” Becker said. “Taking on the top Mock Trial program in the nation, and hanging with them every step of the way gives a huge boost to our program’s reputation. We earned the respect of some of the dominant forces in college Mock Trial.”
Koeppel added that the Maryland coach was “floored by [Cornell’s] overall skill and talent and enthusiasm.”
In the trials that followed, Cornell was defeated by Furman University in the second round and received two additional split decisions in the third and fourth rounds. The results of all the trials, however, were close. Decisions became a matter of a few points on a scale of 140 points possible, according to Coach Douglas Rawald.
In contrast to teams like Maryland or Furman, where greater funding and awareness allows the schools to compete under the advice of staffs of attorney coaches, Cornell Mock Trial members devise their own legal strategies and arguments and plan their own performances.
“That makes our ability to contend with teams like Maryland, whose team members actually have a Mock Trial class three times a week, for credit, so much sweeter,” Becker said.
Coached by two law students, Rawald and Koeppel, Cornell was “possibly the least coached team” in the Championship, but also “one of the best teams,” according to Koeppel.
Divided into groups of attorneys and witnesses, teams argued each side of a fictitious case developed by the American Mock Trial Association that was loosely based on John Krakauer’s 1997 novel Into Thin Air.
The case centers around the lawsuit of a widow against the guides that accompanied her mountain-climbing husband on an ill-fated Mount Everest expedition that ended in the man’s death. Each team had the opportunity to argue both sides of the case throughout the rounds of the competition.
At almost every stage of the competition members of the Cornell team were honored for their performances. Notably, Omair Khan ’03 was one of six witnesses out of over 200 in the tournament voted to the All-American team. Chosen for his performance as a Sherpa mountain guide, Khan participated with other top attorneys and witnesses in the All-American trial, held at the end of the Championship in U.S. Courthouse in Des Moines in front of about 150 spectators.
Despite the serious nature of the Championship, “we do this because we love it,” Becker said.
The team attributes its success to the fact that there is a great deal of unity among team members, in addition to the passionate attitudes they share.
“It’s the uniqueness of this particular team, the fact that we are not so much pushed from the outside — but we direct ourselves,” Becker said. “This is by far the closest-knit batch of people that I’ve ever worked with.”
“It’s hard to describe how cohesive and strong the dynamic of the Mock Trial team is,” said Aleks Ejsmont ’01. “We’re all big fans of each other.”
Archived article by Jennifer Gardner