In March of 2020, the NIU undergraduate mock trial team was ecstatic when it was announced they had taken second place out of 24 teams at the Opening Round Championship Series (ORCS) tournament at the Kane County Judicial Center in Geneva, Illinois. This earned them a bid to the American Mock Trial Association’s (AMTA) National Championship Tournament (NCT), scheduled to take place in Chicago the following month. Only the top 48 out of more than 750 teams in the country make it to NCT, and this was the third time in five years NIU made it to the big dance.
“It was completely anticlimactic, said political science Professor Mitch Pickerill who coaches NIU mock trial. “The hard work all year long had paid off, so the whole team was so disappointed that their season was cut short prematurely.”
Mock trial competitions moved to Zoom last year. The NIU team did its best to adapt, and competed in six online tournaments. For the seventh year in a row, NIU’s A team once again earned a bid to advance an AMTA regional tournament to its ORCS tournament. Unfortunately, NIU went 4-4 in the Zoom tournament and failed to advance to the NCT.
“We were happy to have the opportunity to compete on Zoom during the pandemic, but it wasn’t the same as the in-person experience,” said co-captain
Gabrielle Sims, who had been on the 2020 team.
Fast forward to the fall of 2021 – and the welcomed return of in person competitions. AMTA issued the case materials for a fictional criminal case, State v. Sutcliffe, in which the defendant has been charged with aggravated arson. In the fall semester of a mock trial season, teams compete in invitational tournaments as a way of preparing for the national intercollegiate mock trial competition in the spring.
So far this fall, NIU’s A team, co-captained by veterans John Patten and Caroline Kuja, has competed in an online tournament hosted by the University of Minnesota, where it finished in 6th place out of 26 teams with a record of 5-2-1. Zachary Lieninger won and Outstanding Attorney Award. The A team has also competed at in-person tournaments at the University of Iowa and the University of Arizona. At Iowa, the team went 4-4 in a very competitive field and did not place. But Caroline Kuja won an Outstanding Attorney Award, and Lieninger won an Outstanding Witness Award. The team’s fortunes were better at the Pima County Courthouse in Arizona where they finished in 6th place with a record of 5-3, and Lieninger won his second Outstanding Attorney Award of the year.
NIU’s B team competed at their first tournament the first weekend of November in the McLean County Courthouse hosted by Illinois State University. While the team only went 1-7, the all-rookie team gained valuable experience for future tournaments.
“I’m so excited to be in-person competing with this team,” Patten said. “We’re fortunate to have a great group of mockers this year, and everyone has bought into our mission.”
Kuja echoed those sentiments. “Competing in person at Arizona was the first time we were able to compete in an actual court room since the before pandemic started. It’s a whole different ball game to be in a court room standing in the same place where real trials take place.”
With a limited travel budget, both NIU teams plan to compete in an online tournament hosted by the University of Oklahoma in December and has plans for at least one tournament in January before the in-person regional tournaments take place in February. AMTA will announce assignment to regional tournament locations later this month. If you have any questions about NIU mock trial, please contact Professor Mitch Pickerill at [email protected] .