MOCK TRIAL TEAM EARNS A BID TO THE OPENING ROUND OF THE NATIONAL FINALS
The St. John’s Mock Trial Team has earned a bid to the Opening Round Championship Series (ORCS) National Finals of the American Mock Trial Association. The bid was secured by a 7th place finish at the Regional Tournament held at Fordham University Law School, this past weekend, February 11-12, 2017. The team compiled a record of 6-2 by defeating Siena College, Wesleyan University and Suffolk University. The only loss was against Wellesley College who finished in second place at the tournament.
Overall, the Mock Trial Team has earned a bid to the national finals 22 times in the 25 years it has competed. One team member, Wisdom Onwuchedkwabanogu won an award for being one of the top ten outstanding attorneys at the Regional.
The ORCS tournament will be held March 18-19, 2017, at the Cohalan Court Complex in Central Islip.
In October, 1989, while attending the Annual Conference of the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE), Professor Bernard Helldorfer learned of an undergraduate activity called the National Intercollegiate Mock Trial Tournament which was begun only a couple of years before at Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa. The tournament was organized by the American Mock Trial Association (AMTA). Convinced of the benefits that a significant academic activity could provide St. John’s students, Professor Helldorfer took steps to secure approval of a Mock Trial Team, to be based on the Jamaica campus.
The proposal to develop a Team was presented to Dean Catherine Ruggieri of the-then St. Vincent’s College. (St. Vincent’s College was renamed and is presently The College of Professional Studies.) Dean Ruggieri was supportive of establishing a program, but indicated that the college budget could not sustain a competitive team.
Professor Helldorfer ('77 CBA, '80L), determined not to let the proposal of a St. John’s Mock Trial Team die, pitched the idea to the former General Counsel of the University, Mr. Herbert Schwartzman, Esq.
Mr. Schwartzman was immediately excited about establishing the team, and agreed to fund the endeavor through the University’s Pre-Law Advisory Committee. In addition, it was decided that membership on the team would be open to all undergraduate students, would be a fully sanctioned University intercollegiate team and would function above the level of being a club.
Recognizing that the monumental task of fielding a competitive team could not be accomplished with just one individual, Professor Helldorfer recruited his law school friend, Professor Oscar Holt III ('73 Ed.,'76 Ed.,'79L) to assist with the process of assembling the first group of mock trial competitors. Professor Holt was a full-time member of the St. Vincent’s College Faculty, and was widely recognized as an outstanding and very successful criminal defense trial level attorney.
On a voluntary basis for 25 years, Professor Helldorfer and Professor Holt have remained the coaches of the team. They persuaded Professor Kareem Vessup ('01 CPS, '04L) to join the coaching staff 15 years ago, after he graduated from law school. As an undergraduate, Professor Vessup was a member of the team for four years.
Recruitment of students for the very first team began in the Spring of 1991 and continued into the Fall. The initial tryouts were held and eventually a team was chosen. It was entered into the Eighth Annual National Intercollegiate Mock Trial Tournament in 1991-1992. That first team set a standard of excellence for Mock Trial at St. John’s, that has never diminished, earning a bid to the national finals in Des Moines, Iowa, from their first regional tournament, and finishing for the first of many times to come in the top ten nationally.
During the first year of the team, the Coaches felt that some symbol of team identity was needed. With limited funds to spare, team jackets were purchased. Little more than summer windbreakers, the first team nevertheless wore them proudly during the frigid months of January, February and March. Till this day, the team jackets, though of somewhat better quality than the windbreakers of 1991-92, are the one and only piece of St. John’s “gear” the team members ever receive.
The academic quality of Mock Trial is now clearly recognized by the Office of the Provost of the University which provides the resources that enable the team to compete in the national tournament each year. First with Dr. Tony Bonaparte, then with Dr. Julia Upton and now with Dr. Robert Mangione, the former Provost of the University has accompanied the team in competition, along with the President of the University, Dr. Conrado “Bobby” Gempesaw. The Coaches and members of the team are deeply grateful for their unwavering support.
Today, after twenty-five years of competition against the most prestigious colleges and universities in the United States, the St. John’s Mock Trial Team stands as one of the most successful teams of the University of any kind, athletic or academic, in intercollegiate competition. Mock trial students have gone on to become distinguished attorneys, accomplished business executives, well-known public officials and educators, while presently, one former mocker, Frances Wang is a Judge of the New York City Criminal Court.
Out of 25 years of the team competing in a regional tournament, for 22 of the years, the team has successfully competed regionally to earn a bid to the national tournament of the American Mock Trial Association. Nationally, of the approximately 600 teams from over 350 Universities and Colleges, the St. John’s Team has continually enjoyed the reputation of being one of the elite programs in the Nation. It has defeated such Universities as Harvard, Princeton, Fordham, Georgetown, Yale, Brown, and Columbia. In fact, in past years, the program has earned numerous trophies and awards; it has been honored by the New York State Senate in Albany and it was honored within the Chamber of the New York City Council.
The team has never won the national championship, however, coming its closest in the 1999-2000 season when it finished No. 2 in the country, just one-half point behind the University of Maryland. The quest for “the Box,” as the huge mahogany and brass national championship trophy is affectionately known, therefore continues. But as Professor Helldorfer often says, paraphrasing the John Wayne character “Ethan Edwards” in the John Ford movie, The Searchers: “In the end, we’ll [get it], I promise you, as sure as the turnin’ of the earth.”
Through this extraordinary academic activity, an opportunity has been given to many undergraduate students to develop the skills of a successful professional person, including critical thinking, self-confidence, thinking on your feet and effective oral advocacy. Students also learn the true values and mission of this Vincentian University. The tradition…and the mission…continue.
Professor Helldorfer, who passed away in December, 2016 will long be remembered for his contributions to the success of the Mock Trial Team as well as his giftedness as a professor at St. John's University.
Professor Oscar Holt lll, Esq.[email protected]
Professor Kareen Vessup, Esq.[email protected]
Hon. Frances Wang