Courtroom gavel sits atop law book next to scale of justice

Mock Trial Team Competes at Invitational, Prepares for Regional Competition

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Buffalo State College’s Mock Trial Team competed in the nationally recognized “Friar Faceoff” tournament that St. Bonaventure University hosted online January 30 and 31. The team’s 11 students, who assumed the roles of attorneys and witnesses, achieved four wins over the weekend.

John Quinane, a social studies education major, and Mimi Byrne, a biology major, captained the team vying against competitors from 20 schools, including Arizona State University, the University of Rochester, and Carnegie Mellon.

“This was an invitational tournament in which students on the more senior of our two teams competed,” explained David Ben-Merre, Buffalo State professor of English and the team coach. “It was a tough case this year, and our students did very well.”

Mock trial is an intercollegiate competition in which student-witnesses and student-attorneys prepare fictional court cases for a simulated trial. Each year, the American Mock Trial Association (AMTA), the governing body for collegiate mock trial, puts together a new case, including more than 150 pages of case law, affidavits, depositions, expert reports, evidence, and more that students must peruse in preparation. Each trial has two scoring judges who award points for the opening statement, direct examination, witness performances, cross-examination, and closing arguments.

This year’s civil case, Petrillo v. Martini and Peony, featured a poisoning at a winery during a wedding rehearsal. The plaintiff had the option of pursuing either a civil battery theory—the victim was intentionally poisoned—or a negligence theory—the winery broke safety laws, causing pesticides to enter the wine bottle.

“Along with performing excellently as a team, many of the members performed well individually,” Ben-Merre said. This included Alex Hellert, a business administration major and philosophy minor, who won an Outstanding Witness Award for his portrayal of the winery owner.

“He played a loathsome human being and was very good at distracting the jury from some of the claims that the plaintiff wanted to level at the defense,” Ben-Merre said. “He really embodied the character he was portraying.”

“We advanced to the national competition six or seven years ago, and I’m hoping we can do that again. Both teams are fantastic. They know the material, are self-motivated, and have really developed a nice rapport with one another.”

- David Ben-Merre, Ph.D., Professor of English and Mock Trial Team Coach

Other Buffalo State competitors whom the judges recognized individually included Rimah Adib, Grace Gallagher, Marissa Lamarti, Lindsey Roth, Charlie Rowe, Victoria Sample, Bathena Toussaint, and Dominique Zirpola.

Both of Buffalo State’s mock trial teams—there also is one composed mostly of freshmen—will have the chance to argue the same case during the regional competition February 27 and 28 that Arizona State University is hosting virtually.

Most of the students were enrolled in the Mock Trial course that Ben-Merre teaches in the fall. They dove right into the material in September and continued to refine their arguments and performances throughout the semester.

Ben-Merre also serves on the AMTA Board of Directors and brings expertise from his participation as a student on Johns Hopkins University’s mock trial team. He has coached the Buffalo State team on and off for 10 years, many of those alongside Jon Lines, lecturer of political science and public administration, who founded the team.

“There were lots of changes this year to bring the trials to an online format,” Ben-Merre said. “Our students did incredibly well adapting.”

On February 13 and 14, Buffalo State will host the Great Lakes Regional Tournament for the 11th year in row. This year’s competition includes students from 20 colleges and universities across the country. Because the ongoing pandemic requires virtual platforms for this year’s competitions, the mock trial organizers gave geographically distant schools the chance to compete in ways not possible during in-person competitions. Thus, Buffalo State will participate in the regional competition hosted by Arizona State University, rather than the one hosted locally.

For the past 10 years, Lines and Kelly Boos, executive assistant to the dean of the School of Natural and Social Sciences, have cohosted the Great Lakes Regional Tournament. This year Ben-Merre and Paul Perlman, a local attorney who is also a lecturer in Buffalo State’s Economics and Finance Department, helped plan the competition, which recruited more than 80 Western New York attorneys to judge the four rounds of the competition.

The top teams from each of the country’s 32 regional tournaments will compete in the national competition in March.

“We advanced to the national competition six or seven years ago,” Ben-Merre said. “And I’m hoping we can do that again. Both teams are fantastic. They know the material, are self-motivated, and have really developed a nice rapport with one another.”