BY TAREAH IKHARO
Spend five minutes in the lounge of the Criminal Justice Institute (CJI) and you are bound to be overwhelmed. Students run from small office to small office, commandeer the copy machine, and vigorously debate the merits of an obscure law review article. It is no wonder this program produced the victors of the National Puerto Rico Trial Advocacy Competition for the second consecutive year, held this year in San Juan on Oct. 28-30.
CJI’s trial advocacy team is composed of four student advocates, handpicked by the dedicated leaders tasked with coaching them to success. “The goal was to defend [last year’s] title,” said Clinical Instructor Dehlia Umunna, who, along with CJI Deputy Director Soffiyah Elijah, coaches the CJI team. “It was not enough to do well.”
This year’s team was comprised Ieshaah Murphy ‘12, Anthony Hendricks ‘12, Mostofa Abdelkarim ‘11, and Nneka Ukpai ‘11. Murphy, who won best advocate after a statistical tie with Ukpai — the two were separated by a small fraction of a point — participated in mock trial competitions throughout her undergraduate career and has her sights set on the public defender’s office. A spot on the CJI trial advocacy team seemed a natural fit.
The trial team argued a case involving an armed robbery and murder committed within days of the defendant’s release from prison for a separate armed robbery charge. The prosecution, staffed by Abdelkarim and Hendricks, called two police officers who testified that the defendant confessed to committing the crimes to them. In response, the defense called the defendant’s parents, who served as alibi witnesses. When asked why the defense made the decision not to call the defendant to testify on his own behalf, Akpai remarked, “that’s not a good idea in general.” Doing so, he explained, has the potential to shift the burden of proof from the prosecution to the defense. “Every school we went against called the defendant,” said Akpai, noting that such tactical decisions routinely make or break cases for attorneys.
The relationship between the Puerto Rico competition team members and their coaches can only be described as one of mutual admiration. “I’m not a drill sergeant—yet,” said Umunna with a laugh, noting that those students lucky enough to make the CJI team already have the talent and fundamentals essential to advocacy. “Our job is simply to hone those skills for success.”
The coaches are not, however, dictatorial — part of their mentorship process involves providing a great deal of autonomy to student advocates and allowing them to develop their own case theories. “It’s really more of a caring, mentoring relationship,” said Ukpai. “They are like my family.” Ukpai, the most experienced member of the Puerto Rico team, having won a place on numerous trial teams, including last year’s Puerto Rico team, describes her relationship with her teammates in similar terms.
While they may have passionate debates on whether to introduce a piece of evidence or on the merits of calling a certain witness, disagreements are voiced respectfully. “Reasonable minds can differ,” she said. One key to success is figuring out a method for working through disagreements in a constructive manner. “We get into passionate evidentiary debates, people bring forward supporting law for their positions, we discuss, and then we come to a group consensus,” said Ukpai.
In the end, what matters for the success of the team, after spending countless hours together debating intensely, is the maintenance of cohesion. “It is much easier to manage a team when they agree on principle and realize that the team unit matters more than any individual, ” said Umunna. “In that sense, this team in brilliant. Committed. Passionate. Probably one of the best teams we have ever had.”
And members seem to have much appreciation for the skills each person brings to the team. Abdelkarim is described by his teammates as the great storyteller of the bunch, with the ability to captivate the courtroom completely. “The prosecutor told me Mostofa’s closing argument moved her to tears,” said Ukpai with a smile. “And she helped write the problem!” Murphy elaborated that when in character, Abdelkarim takes his role very seriously. “During one really intense and long practice session, I said a “murdery” instead of a murder and robbery. Mostofa, who was playing a witness, did not laugh at all — he just looked me dead in the eye!”
Hendricks, an affable and proud Oklahoman, is described as the epitome of poise and calm in the courtroom. “He’s the everyday guy,” said Murphy. “Nice, easy to get along with… you want to listen to what he has to say.”
For Ukpai, who plans to be a trial lawyer, the benefits garnered from participation on the team outweigh the hard work and long hours she puts in along the way. “We get an incredible amount of one-on-one criticism and feedback that we would not normally have the chance to receive,” she said.