Student-led mock trial team makes it to nationals

Undergraduate Doug DiCicco started the mock trial team four years ago. Photo by Jennifer McNulty.

In only its third year, the UCSC mock trial team made it to the semifinal round of the national college mock trial championship, facing off against powerhouse teams from Yale, the University of Pittsburgh, and Loyola University Chicago.

The accomplishment was even more impressive given that UCSC's team is entirely student-led, without any coaches.

"It's very unusual for a team in its third year to advance as far as we did," said program coordinator and varsity team captain Doug DiCicco. "It took a lot of hard work. Every member of this team wanted to succeed."

Many schools field teams coached by law-school faculty members, attorneys, and judges, noted DiCicco, who started UCSC's mock-trial club four years ago and first fielded a team with eight members in 2005.

Mock trial competitions are a popular way for students to explore the work of trial attorneys and learn about the judicial system. Participants spend six months acting out all aspects of a civil or criminal trial based on a fictional case provided each August by the American Mock Trial Association. Team members rehearse the roles of plaintiffs, defense attorneys, and witnesses, and they sort through affidavits, evidence, and exhibits. Team members exchange roles and "play both sides" of the case.

DiCicco got the mock-trial bug during high school in Santa Barbara. "I'm a very competitive person, and I want to be an attorney," said DiCicco, a senior history major with a minor in legal studies who finished classes in winter quarter. He plans to enroll at UC Hastings School of Law in San Francisco this fall.

In 2006, DiCicco recruited students in legal studies and politics classes, and a junior varsity team was added. Both teams made it to the Great Western Regional competition in Los Angeles this year, with the varsity team advancing to the nationals in Waukegan, Illinois. Most participants are juniors and sophomores, making their success even more impressive.

"When I got to UCSC, all the UC campuses had teams except Santa Cruz, Riverside, and Irvine," said DiCicco. "I felt this would benefit the university."

Politics professor Daniel Wirls signed on as faculty sponsor, but the team gets no coaching and only minimal financial support from the campus. "We're self-coached and self-run, a democratic student organization with elected officers," said DiCicco, noting that students from all disciplines participate. "The only other member of the original team is an engineering major."

At the regionals, UCSC ranked beneath only the University of Southern California, which fielded four teams, and Arizona State University. DiCicco received an award for outstanding achievement. Although teams argue the same case all season, new information, witnesses, and evidence are introduced at each competition. "You do have to constantly change and adapt," said DiCicco. "It's an amazing intellectual challenge."

"People do mock trial for a lot of the same reasons they do college sports--to prove their ability, to represent their institution, and to hone their own abilities," he said. "People treat it like a sporting event, tracking individual statistics and placing odds on teams to win."

Students worked hard for their success, meeting at least every week as a whole group, and more often in subgroups, to analyze large amounts of information "from all different angles," said DiCicco. This year's case involved 14 witnesses and nearly 100 pages of affidavits. After the regionals, the varsity team "kicked it up" and doubled the number of meetings, he said. To raise funds for travel and registration fees, team members asked local businesses for contributions, pitched credit cards, and relied on family contributions.

Although some team members come from legal families, including Alexandra Pezone, whose father teaches law at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, DiCicco's parents are both artists. "People are always surprised to hear that," he said. Other members of the varsity team were Meghan Herning, Roopa Krishna, Krissia Martinez, Stephen Michael, Nick Ranish, and Lucy Taylor.

"A lot of campuses have excellent mock trial programs, and now this is one of them," said DiCicco, proudly adding that of two team members who graduated last year, one is in law school at the University of San Diego and the other is working as a paralegal for a prestigious law firm in Washington, D.C.