Just because an attorney has attended law school does not mean they are prepared to prosecute a criminal case in court. Understanding the law is one thing. Putting it in to practice and successfully navigating the courtroom is another.
Throw a pandemic into the mix, and courtroom time is suddenly at an even higher premium.
Solicitor Duffie Stone offers a solution to both issues: Host an intensive prosecutor school and follow it with a Mock Trial Competition. Now in its third year, the competition pairs newly hired law students and junior staff attorneys with more experienced prosecutors who have secured numerous convictions at trial.
For the second consecutive year, Career Criminal Unit Prosecutor Dustin Whetsel was recognized as the event’s outstanding attorney. He was paired with Michelle Hart, a legal associate and recent Charleston School of Law graduate, to win the team competition, as well.
“Naval Justice School and my time as a trial counsel (prosecutor) in the Marine Corps provided a foundation in trial advocacy,” Whetsel said. “The past five years at the Solicitor’s Office has let me develop and refine those skills. Just like every other prosecutor in the office, I’m constantly learning and working to become a more skilled advocate in the courtroom. The mock trial competition gives us the opportunity to pass along to our newer prosecutors those foundational skills and other lessons learned that will serve them well as they start their legal career.”
This importance of this year’s exercise quickly became evident, according to Stone, who taught many of the prosecutor school classes and acted as technical judge during the trial competition.
“Our young attorneys haven’t had the same opportunity to be in court this year due to COVID-19 and having that experience is critical,” Stone said. “The only way a prosecutor becomes better at their craft is by doing. It’s one thing to read about a case, it’s quite another to understand the mechanics of thoroughly prepping a criminal case and presenting it while standing in front of judge and jury.”
The new attorneys were asked to draw on the previous six weeks of learning and apply it to the competition. For each of the three rounds, the basic facts of the case remained the same, but witnesses increasingly added layers to their narratives, forcing the advancing teams to think on their feet.
As any prosecutor will tell you, witnesses can and do change their stories while on the stand. Being able to impeach a witness with their previous statements takes finesse and a thorough understanding of the facts of a case.
In this year’s competition, the volunteer jury was asked to decide whether a bar owner accidentally shot and killed a patron, or if the killing was done with malice and therefore murder.
Points were given for technical acumen – knowledge of the rules of law, court presence, use of exhibits, interview preparation, pretrial motions, and witness order. In addition to providing a verdict, jurors were asked to score each person’s opening and closing remarks and how effective they were in direct and cross examinations.
“Going into trial school I was so unsure of what to do, where to stand, and what to say even though I have watched hundreds of trials,” Hart said. “However, after the practice drills and the lectures by the experienced solicitors in our office, the butterflies started to dissipate. The Mock Trial Competition was not only challenging, but I believe, the most valuable experience I could have gained altogether.”
To make the experience as “real” as possible, a training room at the Solicitor’s Office’s headquarters in Okatie became the courtroom. Cameras and the teleconferencing platform, Microsoft Teams allowed jurors to view the trial and deliberate from the comfort of their home.
First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe presided over the final round, with 15th Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson judging the proceedings online from his office in Horry County. Richardson was joined by five other jurors in a virtual jury box.
“I never experienced anything like our competition in law school,” said newly hired prosecutor Rachel Janowski. “Without a doubt, this was the most meaningful experience I have had since starting my journey to become a prosecutor. The purposefulness of pairing new attorneys with experienced prosecutors gave me a unique opportunity to absorb a lot of information that will help me hit the ground running when courtroom activity resumes in full.”
Each year, our office looks to the community for help with its Mock Trial Competition. If you are interested in being a volunteer juror in next year’s event, email Erinn McGuire at [email protected]. Be sure to include your name, mailing address and phone number.
A special thanks to the following volunteer jurors:
- Marlene F. Coleman of Seabrook, S.C.
- Joe D’Ambrosio of Boca Raton, Fla.
- Russ and Sandy Dimke of Seabrook, S.C.
- Sam Drew of Columbia, S.C.
- Nancy Dunlap of Columbia, S.C.
- Joe and Kay Fragale of Bluffton, S.C.
- Carol Goodwoon of Seabrook, S.C.
- Michael Pellecchia of Seabrook, S.C.
- Gwyneth Saunders of Bluffton, S.C.
- Don Starkey and Donna Ridley Starkey of Beaufort, S.C.
- Vikki Tomlinson of Bluffton, S.C.