Competitive mock trial functions in yearly cycles. Each year, a case packet is distributed to all participating schools in late summer to early fall. The case packet is a series of documents including the charges, penal code, stipulations, case law, and jury instructions as well as all exhibits and affidavits relevant to the case. During a mock trial, competitors are restricted to only the materials provided in the case packet and may not reference any outside sources. In order to prepare for competition, teams thoroughly read and analyze the case packet.
Mock trial teams consist of a minimum of six and a maximum of twelve official members. Each team prepares both sides of the case: prosecution and defense in a criminal trial, plaintiff and defense in a civil action. Each side is composed of three attorneys (or in certain cases, two attorneys) and three witnesses, all played by members of the team. Therefore, the team’s twelve members must be organized into two teams of five-six for the prosecution/plaintiff and defense sides. It is important to note that high school mock trial is governed by state bar associations, meaning that cases, rules, and competition structure vary from state to state whereas all of college mock trial is governed by the American Mock Trial Association, meaning that every school uses the same case and is subject to the same rules.
The mock trial begins with the judge entering the courtroom. The judge then gives out the instructions to the jury (about what they are to listen to). Then if there is a pretrial motion, the defense and prosecution give their respective pretrial arguments. The judge then lets the prosecution or plaintiff give an opening statement followed by the opening statement of the defense. After the opening statements, examination of the witnesses begins. The prosecution/plaintiff calls their witnesses first. A student competitor attorney for the prosecution/plaintiff does a direct examination of the witness. Once the direct examination is complete, the opposing team may cross-examine the witness. After the cross-examination, if the first team chooses, they may redirect the witness and, likewise, the other team may do a re-cross after this. This process is repeated for the two remaining plaintiff witnesses. Once the prosecution/plaintiff has finished with their witnesses, the process is repeated with the defense witnesses, having the defense attorneys direct and the plaintiff attorneys cross-examine.
Once all of the witnesses have been examined, the trial moves to closing arguments. The prosecutor/plaintiff again goes first. After the defense finishes their closing argument, the plaintiff may give a rebuttal argument if they still have time remaining. In some competitions, the rebuttal is limited to the scope of the defense’s closing argument. Time limits are set at each level of competition to prevent the trials from running too long and to keep rounds of competition running smoothly.
There are several different ways that a mock trial can be judged. In one, the judges for scoring the mock trial consist of the presiding judge and two scoring judges, all of whom score the teams. In a second method, there are two scoring judges and the presiding judge, as in the first method, but the presiding judge does not score the teams, rather the judge simply votes or casts a ballot for one team or another. In yet another method of judging, there are three scoring judges and the presiding judge is not involved in the scoring of the teams. Often at college invitationals, there are two scoring judges, one of whom doubles as the presiding judge. Since enticing attorneys to judge is notoriously difficult (as judges are rarely compensated with more than a free lunch), it is rare to see more than two judges in a round at most competitions.
Unlike real law, the victorious team does not necessarily have to win on the merits of the case. Instead, evaluators score individual attorneys and witnesses on a 1-10 scale based on each stage of the trial. These consist of the opening statements for the plaintiff and defense, each of the witnesses’ testimony, direct and cross-examination by attorneys, and the closing statements for both sides. The team with the highest total number of points is often, but not always, the team that wins the judge’s verdict. Given this method of scoring, it is possible for the defendant to be found guilty or lose the case but for the defense team to still win the round.
In some competitions, points can be deducted from a team’s score for testifying with information outside the scope of the mock trial materials and for unsportsmanlike conduct or abuse of objections. However, scores are completely at a judge’s discretion, meaning that scores are arbitrary.
In the first round of the tournament, all of the teams are randomly matched to compete with each other. After the first round of some tournaments, teams are “power matched” to go up against other teams with similar records (e.g. in the second round, a 1-0 team will be matched with another 1-0 team). If there is a tie in record, the judges will use the number of ballots and total points earned to decide the matching. This allows for teams to compete with other teams of similar skill.