City High Mock Trial emerges second-best team in the country

After dominating the Iowa State Mock Trial Championships, the Iowa City High School Mock Trial team capped off their 2021 season with a second-place finish at the national tournament.


Ayrton Breckenridge

A portion of Team Little and Women (LAW) of Iowa City High poses for a portrait on Wednesday, April 7. Team LAW took first place out of 84 teams at the Mock Trial State Championship.

Grace Hamilton, News Reporter

Iowa’s unrivaled senior Mock Trial squad from Iowa City High School secured a second-place finish at the 2021 National High School Mock Trial Tournament from their coaches’ basement and dining room table. 

“We had our witnesses compete upstairs in the dining room and our attorney’s compete downstairs so the sound from the Zoom didn’t overlap,” Lisa Williams, City High Mock Trial attorney coach, said. “The problem with competing in a Mock Trial tournament in your house is wondering if the cat is going to jump on the computer and get in the Zoom, or if somebody will ring the doorbell, or if the WiFi is going to go out.” 

City High’s team advanced to this year’s National Mock Trial Tournament — hosted virtually from May 12-15 — after winning the Iowa High School State Mock Trial Tournament in March. 

Among the 46 state Mock Trial programs represented at the tournament, City High’s team went on to solidify Iowa’s reputation as one of the country’s most dominant Mock Trial programs

Mock Trial is a high school and collegiate activity that simulates a fictional pre-written court case. Participants act as attorneys or witnesses, often using true-to-life procedures and portrayals to present a side to the legal problem. 

As a national-qualifying team, the City High team was tasked with developing a prosecution and defense case for the tournament’s legal problem, State of Indiana v. Smith Dawson

While operating a towboat on the Ohio River on May 4, 2019, the case defendant Smith Dawson hit a fishing boat and killed one of its occupants. The state of Indiana subsequently charged Dawson with two Level 5 felonies: Reckless Homicide and Leaving the Scene. 

Reminiscent of its state victory, City High advanced into the National Tournament’s final round undefeated. The Park School of Baltimore in Maryland won the national title in a narrow victory over City High.

Ballot scores from the final round are not available to the public, although Williams said the scoring difference on several of the rubrics were marginal. 

Faculty City High Mock Trial Coach Chip Hardesty said he did not find the team’s national runner-up finish surprising. 

“I thought they had done brilliantly,” Hardesty said. “They were so prepared, and came across so calm and confident that I thought that they were winning all the time.”

Jason Schuman, faculty City High Mock Trial coach and spouse to Williams, said he wasn’t shocked to see the senior team excel at the national level despite the altered competition format.

“I wasn’t surprised. This was an incredibly talented team,” Schuman said. “We had witnesses who were playing parts that were so different. We had a witness act as an Italian-born expert with an Italian accent for one role who then turned around in the next round portraying someone who was a jug-fishing, baseball playing, tough-as-nails girl from southern Indiana.” 

Although her coaches anticipated their team’s success, City High senior and team attorney Shoshanna Hemley said she initially felt uncertain about the group’s ability to compete at the national level. 

“Four days before the national competition started, we had a scrimmage against a team from Texas, and after that scrimmage I literally went home and cried,” Hemley said. “… In that moment of stress, I was thinking, ‘We’re gonna embarrass ourselves at Nationals.’ But then we got second.” 

Hemley attributed these doubts to her and the team’s involvement with other extracurriculars while simultaneously preparing for the new case in a shorter time frame. 

City High senior and team witness Francesca Brown said she thinks the Mock Trial team’s attorneys and witnesses tend to have a different outlook on their performance. 

“I did not cry after that scrimmage,” Brown said. “I just want to say for the record, the attorneys freak out a lot more than the witnesses do.” 

However, the team’s attorney-witness dynamic ended up blending together for what City High senior and team witness Tobey Keith described as a perfect final performance. 

“It just felt like everything came together for our final round of mock trial during the championship match, and I can’t name one mistake from it,” Keith said. “I think it was really cool to see our team run a perfect round of Mock Trial, despite the fact that we lost the final round.” 

Hoping to extend the Mock Trial experience to junior high students, Williams said the City High coaching trio has plans for starting a middle school Mock Trial program in the Iowa City Community School District. 

“We’ve talked about getting a junior high program up and running in Iowa City,” Williams said. “We just really think that Mock Trial is something kids like and benefit from, and if we could get one started over at Southeast Junior High School, I think that would be amazing.” 

While Mock Trial helps students develop broadly relevant skills like public-speaking and problem-solving, sometimes the extracurricular compels participants toward a future in the courtroom. 

“I can’t even really remember why I joined the mock trial team, to be completely honest,” Keith said. “But now, Mock Trial has definitely influenced my college decision. It was something I was asking colleges about and has even made me think about going to law school someday. I never thought that would be the case.” 

For Hemley, competing in a high school Mock Trial confirmed what she has long-hoped for her future. 

“I have always known I wanted to go into political science and law, and that’s why I first joined Mock Trial,” Hemley said. “I obviously got so much more out of it than I anticipated because now it’s addicting. Thinking quickly on your feet by arguing and objecting is like the ultimate adrenaline rush.”