You really don’t want to start an argument with Maddy Cuddy. In fact, don’t start an argument with any of the members of the Winman Junior High School Mock Trial team. They will object and give you a perfectly detailed explanation of why.
Cuddy and her teammates are so good at arguing that they won the first ever State Mock Trial Junior Division State Championships on Tuesday, defeating the team from Little Compton’s Wilbur & McMahon School by only a few points. They competed at the Garrahy Judicial Complex in Providence with the Honorable Judge Edward P. Sowa presiding.
“It was exciting. It was a lot of work since October,” said Winman Mock Trial coach Anibal Raposo.
Raposo, an eighth grade social studies teacher, has been the Mock Trial coach at Winman for seven years. In the past, the team competed in only two trials – one as the prosecution and one as the defense. But this year the top two teams competed in a championship trial, something Raposo supported.
“It gives a goal for the kids to work towards,” he said.
Jennifer Minuto, Esq. is executive director of the Rhode Island Legal/Educational Partnership, which runs State Mock Trial. She said there has always been a state championship trial for the high school division, but there was always a desire to create one for the junior division as well.
In their first two trials, the Winman team won their cases against both St. Philomena School and Moses Brown School.
Prior to the championship, the team from Winman was already ranked first overall, so they had the opportunity to decide if they would be the prosecution or the defense for the championship. “We picked the prosecution because that was our last trial, and we thought that was our stronger case,” said Raposo.
Each of the three trials was the same fictional case, The State of Rhode Island vs. Sydney Taylor. The plaintiff, Alex Day, is a high school student who was shot in the knee by a school security officer following the Homecoming Game. Day had driven his car to a secluded part of the stadium and was spending time with two friends after the game. There were questions of drinking and gang-related activities, which Day denied. Day claimed the school security officer Sydney Taylor had a personal vendetta against him. Taylor was charged with intent to murder, aggravated assault and negligent use of a firearm.
Taylor’s defense was that Day and his friends were suspected gang members, and Day pointed a gun at him. No gun was recovered from the scene; Taylor claims one of Day’s friends ran away with it. Taylor pleaded self-defense as his reason for shooting.
The Winman team performed incredibly well, walking throughout the courtroom instead of using the provided podium and rarely looking at note cards. In fact, Bella Bianco, who delivered the opening statement for the team, did not use any note cards at all; she memorized her speech.
Raposo was especially proud of the work put in by his students in preparing for trials, meeting every Tuesday since October for two hours. Because the 10-member team has to prepare both a prosecution and a defense case, most students have multiple roles. They may be a defense witness, but a prosecution lawyer. “It’s a lot of work because they have to learn two parts,” said Raposo, adding students know their characters inside and out.
The most surprising part of this is while watching the students compete in a real courtroom in front of a real judge, it is very easy to forget they are between 12 and 14 years old. This year’s team included three seventh graders and seven eighth graders. Raposo admits he would not have been able to do this at their age, but believes it is a valuable experience.
“It’s a great skill. It teaches you to think on your feet, how you’re going to respond to what the witness is going to say,” said Raposo.
The ability for the students to respond was evident with their ability to object to questions and responses posed by their opponents. Cuddy, Sophia Maynard and Grace Reed served as attorneys during the trial, and consistently objected and provided valid reasoning. Raposo said in their first case the team didn’t raise one objection, so that was something they worked on diligently.
“We purposely made situations during practice to work on objections,” said Raposo.
Judge Sowa also complemented both teams on objections. In mock trial, teams earn points for successfully winning objections; from Sowa’s observations, Winman won more than they lost.
While some of his students join Mock Trial because they have an interest in law or their parents are lawyers, Raposo does use a creative marketing strategy.
“When I advertise it, I use the idea of ‘do you like to argue?’” he said.
He also tries to attract students who like legal shows like “Law & Order” or enjoy acting.
“I try to put it that way. I try to make it fun for them,” said Raposo.
He also highlights how good it would look on a college resume and the useful skills, but acting and arguing tends to get them in the door.
Each year, Raposo estimates over 20 students audition for Mock Trial. To figure out which students would be best, Raposo and the team’s attorney coach Jeffrey Caffrey ask the students to create a defense argument for the Big Bad Wolf from “The Three Little Pigs.”
“That’s how we get a sense of how they would be. It’s funny how the kids come up with these arguments,” said Raposo.
Prior to the start of the trial and again as the performance judges deliberated, Judge Sowa complimented both teams on their skills.
“These two teams have performed so beautifully in these trials,” said Sowa. “I have never seen a junior high-middle school level at this caliber, but these two teams and several others are superb.”
He added that many of the teams are almost at the level of most high school teams.