In a Philadelphia courtroom, USC mock trial team member Lauren Ige confidently stood before a judge and argued that a man who drove with a blood alcohol level higher than the legal limit of .08 and crashed his car, killing a passenger, should be charged with murder.
The ability of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences senior to show that the defendant put his passengers’ lives in danger by racing down a windy road paid off when the judge ruled in favor of the prosecution.
Ige’s efforts, along with those of her 26 USC teammates, helped the squad overpower the competition in the University of Pennsylvania’s Quaker Classic Tournament held on Nov. 12-13.
The Trojans’ four squads claimed first, fourth, fifth and eighth place among 10 teams that took part in the competitions. Of the more than 360 competitors, USC students claimed seven of the 24 individual honors – and most of the honors went to USC Dornsife students.
Ige was recognized as a best attorney in the competition, along with USC Dornsife sophomore Katelyn Williams and juniors Christen Philips and Justin Lu. USC Dornsife senior Arpine Sardaryan, Lu and Philips each earned a best witness award.
“They did exceedingly well,” said Olu Orange, a civil rights attorney and adjunct assistant professor of political science at USC Dornsife. “They were prepared, dedicated and enthusiastic about representing the university.”
Orange founded and oversees the program, which is part of a four-credit course open to all USC undergraduates. The majority of students at the competition represented USC Dornsife, with other members from the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, the USC Leventhal School of Accounting, the USC Marshall School of Business and the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
Each year, the team alternates between civil and criminal cases, exposing students to various legal perspectives. This year, students acted as prosecuting, defense lawyers and witnesses in a mock criminal case that centered on a drunk driver who caused a car crash that killed one of his passengers.
Prior to the tournament, Orange prepared students for the courtroom by reviewing implied malice, in which a person engages in extremely reckless conduct that carries a risk of death. Students also practiced their arguments during trial scrimmages and studied the United States Federal Rules of Evidence and the California Penal Code.
The Philadelphia tournament was the second competition of the season. Four days earlier, the season’s first event was held in St. Paul, Minn. This year, sophomores and freshmen make up the majority of the group.
“This is by far the youngest team that we have ever had,” Orange said. “However, these students have a bold and adventurous thought process that will continue to yield results like those in Philadelphia.”
Students refined their arguments in the days leading up to the Philadelphia competition. They implemented the Minnesota judges’ suggestions to speak clearly and slowly.
“It was amazing to see how the new members did in a real courtroom and how they adjusted their performances in accordance with the comments given by the judges,” said Sardaryan, who is majoring in philosophy.
Those tweaks did not go unnoticed in the City of Brotherly Love.
During closing arguments in Philadelphia, Ige restructured her final statement to avoid repetition. The change was recognized when she was honored as a best attorney.
“I worked hard on arguing every element that we needed to prove the case,” said Ige, an economics major whose squad took fifth place. “This is my first year being a closer and it’s nerve-racking, but I got to bring the whole case together and give the judges a big-picture argument.”
USC Dornsife freshman Mitchell Diesko, a political science major, focused on speaking clearly and walking with a purpose rather than pacing the courtroom floor. He also paid close attention to the defense’s arguments in preparation for his performance. With inflection in his voice, the Las Vegas, Nev., native effectively argued that the suspect’s actions of drinking and then driving at high speeds showed his disregard for the lives of his two passengers. Diesko’s closing statement helped his squad place first in the tournament.
“I was one to always write everything down,” he said. “With closing, you have to think on your feet and listen throughout the entire process. You have to pick out what’s important and do the best you can when you’re up there.”
The tournament helped to build USC Dornsife freshman Anthony Gutierrez’s confidence in the courtroom – important since he plans to become an attorney. He admittedly was nervous in Minnesota and strived to stay calm in Philadelphia when he cross-examined a witness.
Gutierrez took a few deep breaths and reminded himself to abide by the team’s rule to present arguments slowly, loudly and smoothly. His voice was strong and steady. He commanded the judge’s attention.
“As time went on, I felt more comfortable,” the political science major said. “I knew I understood the case and focused on what I needed to accomplish, which was getting out key points.”
The Torrance native’s performance as prosecuting attorney and witness helped his team place fourth in the faceoff.
Now back in Los Angeles, team members are continuing to build on their presentation skills and deepen their knowledge of criminal law in preparation for their next bout in January against UCLA.
“There is more work to be done, but I know we will be ready for nationals,” Ige said. “Everyone on the team works really hard, and I think that will take us a long way.”
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