New London — Men and women in dark suits gathered in hallways at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy Saturday, discussing legal strategy as they waited for court to open.
They looked and sounded like young lawyers but actually were "mockers."
Undergraduates from 13 schools were taking part in the sixth annual Guardian Invitational Mock Trial Tournament, with volunteers from the legal community serving as judges.
A civil wrongful death case involving a diving accident was on the docket. Each team received details of the case from the American Mock Trial Association in August and began rehearsing from both the plaintiff's and defendant's side in preparation for this weekend's season opener.
While the mock court was in session, teams were identified by nickname rather than school name in an effort to avoid claims of bias. Since the Coast Guard was hosting, the teams were named after Coast Guard cutters. In one classroom Saturday morning, the Coast Guard team, "Active," was taking on Quinnipiac University's "Steadfast."
"I think you'll see a lot of talent on both sides," said Ryan Vandehei, a 1st Class cadet from Essex.
The Coast Guard was playing the role of the plaintiff, with cadets cast as the plaintiff's attorneys, expert witnesses and the plaintiff, a widower who brought the lawsuit against a diving company after his wife failed to ascend from a dive.
The volunteer judges, Hartford attorney Lucas Watson and Coast Guard attorney Robert Canoy, listened to testimony, ruled on points of law and graded each participant on a scale of 1 to 10. In a "war room" set apart from the classrooms, volunteer cadets tabulated the results, rated the teams and scheduled the matches.
Ed McDermott, an adjunct professor and mock trial coach from the College of the Holy Cross, passed the time in a hallway with his fellow coach, Jim Healey, as the Holy Cross team competed in a nearby classroom.
McDermott, who teaches pre-law classes, said mock trial has gained in popularity over the years and benefits even those students not interested in becoming lawyers.
"It's more presence than anything," he said. "It's a legal problem, but it's also presenting evidence. You've got to get up on your feet and make a coherent argument."
Some of his mock trial students have gone on to great law schools, and others have said, "It's not for me," he said.
"I personally would like to become a lawyer in the future, and I know many of my teammates feel the same way," said Lauren Olsen, a Fordham University student from Orange County, Calif.
Neal Sukhia, a Fordham student from Old Bridge, N.J., said he got excellent feedback on the points he made and on his composure after his first match. The teams will continue "trying" the same case at various venues throughout the academic year leading up to regional and national competitions in the spring.
Lt. Cmdr. Christopher A. Tribolet, chief of the law section in the Coast Guard Academy's humanities department, said students from civilian colleges seem to enjoy the military atmosphere at the academy.
"We really enjoy having so many schools here," Tribolet said. "We want people to know about their service academy in New London."
Today's judges will include several "VIPs," Tribolet said, including federal prosecutor John Durham, Second Circuit Judge Christopher Droney, Connecticut's Chief State's Attorney Kevin T. Kane, Connecticut Deputy Attorney General Nora Dannehy, and Cal Lederer, deputy Judge Advocate General of the Coast Guard.
Following the last match today, 20 awards will be presented based on total points, best defense attorney, best plaintiff's attorneys and best witnesses. The Spirit of the American Mock Trial Association will be presented to the team that best embodies their standard of "advocating forcefully but professionally and being kind when they aren't advocating."