BY CLINTON DICK
While most students spent their spring break soaking up the sun or fulfilling a once-a-year obligation to see one’s parents, a team of four Harvard Law School women were busy winning first place at the 14th annual National Criminal Justice Trial Advocacy Competition, held in Chicago.
“It was an extremely tough competition,” says 2L Cassie Dick, one of the team members. “We went up against some very good teams, and some of the trials involved real battles of will.”
Three-L Theresa Therilus had a less modest take on the competition: “Our motto was ‘I wish you would.’ At the semifinal round we said, ‘We wish someone would try to win the competition from us but it just wasn’t going to happen.'”
Twenty teams from around the country competed in three rounds of trials with judges and attorneys evaluating and scoring the competitors. “Each team has four members and two of the members would be scored in the round while the other two played the witnesses for their teammates,” says Dick.
Dick continues, “[The judges] scored each attorney in the round on a scale of 4-10.5 based on the skill level displayed overall in the trial. They sometimes told us how they would have come out if it were a real case, but that wasn’t a factor in the actual scoring.”
Three-L Kristen Nelson and Therilus were the prosecuting attorneys and Dick and 3L Laura Ferry were the defense attorneys. In the end, the prosecution team won the semi-final round against Syracuse and the defense team won the final round against Louisiana State University. The team members felt the victory was that much more satisfying given that Harvard was the fourth-seeded team going into the semi-final round and they beat Syracuse, which was the top-seeded team in the competition.
But the victory came at the end of a long road of training. “During the month of January we met for a few hours every week to discuss global issues likely to come up in a drug conspiracy case,” says Ferry. “We received the fact pattern at the beginning of February and began meeting twice a week, usually for a total of five hours. As the competition approached, however, we began to have longer practices, including two dress rehearsals, and individual practice sessions.” The final practice round went from 6:30 pm to 1:00 am.
The case centered around a narcotics officer who is accused of conspiring with drug dealers by skimming drugs from raids and reselling it through other dealers. Comments Dick, “The fact pattern was pretty absurd. Basically, this cop is walking around with $5,000 in her pocket, wearing $3,000 Italian suits, driving a Corvette and a Harley” and taking trips to Las Vegas while also attending the birthday party of one of the drug dealer’s daughters. The main witness against the officer has received total immunity, despite the fact that he was found with five kilos of power cocaine, one kilo of heroin, and over 300 grams of crack.
“The best way to describe this case is to say that it rested heavily on reasonable doubt. There were times that it was actually difficult to keep a straight face given the absurdity of the facts involved.” Dick says that during post-commentary, the judges said that while it seemed difficult for the prosecution to meet their burden of proof, once the defense presented their “crazy” story the prosecution’s case actually got stronger.
“Of course the craziness of the facts also made it kind of fun. There were deliberate, gaping holes put in each side’s case so that you can exploit at the expense of your opponent.”
At one point, Dick explains, “Kristen objected to the form of a cross-exam question five or six times. When the cross-examining attorney finally got a ruling in his favor, he could barely remember what he was doing, and actually doubled over, grabbed his hair, and squealed at the floor when the witness (Dick) asked him to repeat the question.”
“Throughout that trial, we remained extremely cool and watched the other team go from being equally cool to increasingly flustered and angry. One of the opposing attorneys actually swore in front of the jury at one point.”
But the group’s ability to take an absurd fact pattern and turn it into a victory is not the only thing that team members think led to their win. “One of the great things about our team was that we had a real sense of unity,” says Dick. “Our combined strengths balance out well.”
Therilus agrees, “I would say that this was an interesting team. Our personalities could not be any different.”
Nelson delivers praise all around: “Laura won Best Advocate in the final round. She is so poised and unflappable. She is going to make a terrific trial lawyer. . . . [Cassie] has a lot of mock trial experience and really helped me improve. Theresa was the spirit and soul of the team, and had us all laughing hysterically most of the time.”
“Also,” Nelson continues, “it was really meaningful to be on an all-female team, and in the end we all really bonded. I think we were the only all-female team at the competition, and I felt very proud that we did so well.”
In addition to the four team members, there were three coaches on the Harvard team: Criminal Justice Institute Deputy Director Soffiyah Elijah, CJI Clinical Instructor Gloria Tan, and CJI Sacks Fellow, Kyana Stephens. “All three were excellent and invested an incredible amount of their personal time to ensure that we were as well-prepared as possible,” says Ferry.
Dick agrees, “All three of the coaches spent a lot of time and energy meeting with us, critiquing us, brainstorming with us. They were always honest, often tough, but supportive to the end. We couldn’t have done it without them.”