Jamie McInelly read the notes on her character dozens of times. She rehearsed her lines when driving to school and clocked in countless hours of practicing her body language in front of the mirror.
This may sound like the usual routine of an actor, but McInelly is not a theatrical performer. She is an aspiring attorney, and the role she is playing is that of a witness in a mock trial case. McInelly, a criminal justice major, is one of 18 students who compose the UNLV Criminal Justice Mock Trial Team.
“I always liked the idea of law school but I didn’t realize how much of a dream it was until I joined the team,” McInelly said.
The team is open to all undergraduate majors. To prepare the next generation of trial advocates, the team competes in regional and national tournaments. Students spend the academic year taking classes in trial advocacy, and arguing in front of practicing attorneys and judges from Southern Nevada.
“I used to hate public speaking, but it’s now second nature to me so that’s a fear I overcame,” McInelly said.
Joel Lieberman, chairman of UNLV’s criminal justice department, said competition gives students the opportunity to refine their critical thinking and presentation skills, while applying classroom knowledge in an experiential learning setting.
“The mock trial team is a fantastic way for building student confidence,” Lieberman said.
The mock trial program is three years old, but its members and coaches are already looking to take UNLV’s team to the national stage.
Judging from the team’s recent performance, it may be well on its way. In February, the members made it past regionals and advanced to the Opening Round Championship Series in Fresno, California.
“I wanted to cry,” McInelly said. “It was a proud moment to hear our name called, and to know that we were one of eight teams to advance.”
The UNLV criminal justice department also co-hosted the regional 2017 Rebel-Trojan All-in Mock Trial Tournament this past January with the University of Southern California at the William S. Boyd School of Law at UNLV.
This year’s competition required students to present a case on age discrimination. Competitions require students to serve as attorneys for the prosecution and defense, and act as witnesses. Students must make opening and closing statements, question witnesses, and argue rules of evidence.
At the Rebel Trojan Tournament, Matthew Nardone, a UNLV criminal justice student who graduated last year, received an award for best attorney. Katarina Roach, a UNLV criminal justice student who graduated this year, received an award for outstanding witness.
Getting Mentorship Before Making Career Decisions
Jason Mitchell, the team’s coach and faculty advisor, is building the mock trial team into a mentorship and networking platform for undergrads and high school students interested in pursuing careers in criminal justice or law.
“There’s a huge disconnect between textbooks and what goes on in the real world,” Mitchell said. Events like an upcoming scrimmage between the team and UNLV law students, he said, serves as a wake-up call.
Mitchell has two law degrees and worked at the U.S. federal public defender’s Las Vegas office. The team’s assistant coach, Robson Hauser, is a Las Vegas public defender. Local judges preside in team practice trials and in Mitchell’s classes which alternate between civil and criminal cases each academic year. Clark County Municipal Judge Martin D. Hastings is scheduled to preside in a mock trial for Mitchell’s class this fall and Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson once served as a judge for a mock trial.
“I am interested in students competing, but ultimately, I’m interested in ensuring students are prepared to pick up a case file, walk into a court and try a case,” Mitchell said. “The classes and team experience provide a hint of what’s to come and what’s waiting for students so they can make an informed decision if law school is for them,” Mitchell said.
McInelly is ready. A former psychology major, she was hand-picked by Mitchell to join the mock trial team, which cemented her aspiration pursue law. With her criminal justice degree in hand, she’ll attend law school in 2018.