A Lesson from Mock Trial

“Presumed Innocent.” These two words, and the concept they represent, are what I learned in High School Mock Trial Competition.

The first year I auditioned for Mock Trial, I requested a spot with the prosecution. I was seeking an experience in which I could promote justice for the victims of crime and punishment for the perpetrators: a pre-scandal Elliot Spitzer meets Law and Order, with me playing the part of the crusading barrister. I was assigned to the defense team.

I began the year grudgingly picking apart minute discrepancies in what I assumed would be a slam-dunk for the prosecution. Hours spent reviewing the “facts” led to doubt, then a growing sense that statements of fact were skewed against the defendant. As the year wore on, I came to see our client as the wronged victim of chance who had been a sitting duck for a larger conspiracy.

My change in attitude was greatly influenced by the volunteer coaches who helped my team. Many among them were Public Defenders for Ventura County. They believed passionately in the rights of the accused. They told me stories of the innocent wrongly accused as well as of the guilty wrongly acquitted. Along the way, I stopped asking how anyone could feel right about successfully defending the guilty and started thinking about how a presumption of innocence protects us all.

I’ve learned that many people are accused of crimes in part because of their ethnic group or association, or because of flawed investigations. In a country in which felons benefit from a justice system conceived to protect the innocent, the fundamentals that prevent wrongful subjugation are more important than whether or not OJ walks. After three unbeaten years of creative and dodgy defense of someone who could well be guilty, I know that giving the accused the benefit of the doubt keeps the innocent free – and that’s the one thing I will never mock.

Nick Bern graduated from Cate School in 2009 and now attends Amherst College. Chief Deputy Public Defender Jean Farley reports on his service as a summer clerk in her office: “This unpaid volunteer showed up for work in professional business attire, and worked on whatever we assigned, including filing, organizing case files, purging data from files and also, observing courtroom presentations, assisting in preparing power point demonstrations. We had no money to pay clerks this summer and he considered himself one of the lucky people who didn’t have to earn a paycheck. Refreshing example of the future lawyers.”