5. A Ram in the Bush
The undergraduate trial season at Dillard University gets off to a disastrous start as Hurricane Ida lays waste to the campus, forcing students into hotels for safety. Coach Adria Kimbrough must quickly re-assemble her team and get them prepped for its first competition at Ole Miss., where generations ago, Black students were denied entry. Times change and the Dillard team rallies, but some victories are bittersweet.
Learn more about the schools, programs and special guests:
Visit our show page for transcripts and more details about the series at ClassActionPod.com
Katie Phang: Class Action is a production of iHeartRadio and Sound Argument.
News Anchor: If Ida’s winds verify that 150-mph landfall today, it will tie for the strongest hurricane on record to strike Louisiana’s coast and the strongest to strike the Bayou perishes since Hurrican Betsy.
News Anchor: We are keeping an eye on these power lines here because some of these could potentially come down.
News Anchor: We’ve got category three gusts, flooding rains that are occurring, and flood warnings in the city, tornado possibilities, as well.
News Anchor: This is going all night long. This is not going to stop until tomorrow morning. And the longer the winds blow like this, the more damage there is to the infrastructure.
News Anchor: In most areas, you’re looking at 92 to 98 percent of residents without power.
News Anchor: This is one of the many trees uprooted by Hurricane Ida’s strong winds throughout the New Orleans area. The hurricane’s devastating impact is obvious.
Adria Kimbrough: I left New Orleans with three days of clothes thinking I was coming right back and now it's two weeks later and I don't have anything that is professional to wear. My name is Adria Kimbrough. And I am the coach for the Dillard University Mock Trial Team. Today is September the 20th. Our campus is still closed. Our students have all evacuated to their respective homes or to some place that they decided to evacuate.
The city is still very much in recovery. I just got my trash picked up on Saturday, the first time in probably three weeks. We had students who had family members and loved ones who lost folks to COVID. And then to follow that with a hurricane, almost a category five this year, so back to back. So the campus will reopen on Friday and in-person classes will resume on Monday. But certainly what that means, as it relates to our team, is that we are a bit behind. What is it? What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
Katie Phang [narration]: I'm Katie Phang. This is episode five of Class Action, A Ram in the Bush.
DeAndre Bell: It's a desert. It's a desert.
Katie Phang [narration]: One week after the campus of Dillard University in New Orleans was shut down because of the damage done by Hurricane Ida.
DeAndre Bell: It hurts. It hurts.
Katie Phang [narration]: Students like DeAndre Bell are making the best of it.
DeAndre Bell: This is Lawless Chapel, this is where we hold all of our church services and things of that nature. If you look you can see that the big main window at the point or the tip of the chapel was blown out. There was a big cross in there, blown out, all that kind of stuff. They had to patch it up with wood. These are the Gardens Apartments, you can't see from here but some of the roofs are slightly caved in because the tree branches and things like that. They have asbestos in the walls and the hurricane shook up the walls enough to release that into the air which is why we had to move into the hotel to begin with.
Adria Kimbrough: Good morning, everyone, welcome back. Welcome back. I hope you all got something to eat. While there is truth to it, twice as good as what? Twice as good as whom? Let's just be frank about it. So we're saying twice as good as the standard, which is white. That's really what it means. And so why is white the standard? Why should it be? Why should it be? Instead of measuring ourselves in comparison to others, we figure out what our standard is and work to meet it every time. If it's excellence, it's excellence, period.
You all know the history of this team. You know we started the team in one year. The second year we made it to the opening round championship which was just ridiculous. So once the team had achieved to hit that benchmark, then it was like, "Well, now we want to go to nationals because we've been to ORCS." Nationals is the next thing. And I think that third year and since, it's always been nationals, Nationals, Nationals. And that makes sense, that's an admirable goal. Sterling's point was that Nick Saban is not focused on winning this notion...
Lajeanne Shelton: My name is Lajeanne. I'm a graduating senior. This would be my fourth and final year on this team.
DeAndre Bell: This is DeAndre here I am a junior. This is my third year at Dillard Mock Trial.
Amaya Ronczyk: This is Amaya Ronczyk, I'm a graduating senior as well. And it is my fourth and final year. One value that I've learned is being able to lead from every position. I didn't start off as the president or vice president on this team. I started off as a middle attorney or opening attorney. I've been a witness. I've been a timekeeper. I've been a closer and opener and I've had to learn how to help lead my team even when I didn't have all of the accolades to show for it.
DeAndre Bell: DeAndre here, for me, one of the biggest takeaways I've gotten from mock trial is the ability to use my voice for something that's not for me. You know what I'm saying? Growing up as a church boy from Texas, there are a lot of flashy things that we do in the church that don't necessarily translate well into the courtroom. So learning how to adjust and modify different approaches has definitely been something that has helped me grow in the mock trial.
Adria Kimbrough: Let's think about what we can do today for the task at hand. Again, I'm just mesmerized by this because we talk so much about the end game and we don't always spend as much time talking about doing the things that we need to do to get there.
Katie Phang: Lajeanne, what's the most important lesson you take away from having coach Adria and having been on this team?
Lajeanne Shelton: Miss Kimbrough, she has been very influential in my life. She's what the old people would say, "She's a ram in the bush." She's always there. She's very much behind the scenes. She's the person who's looking out for you when you think nobody is looking out for you. But I would say the most important lesson I got from Miss Kimbrough was really never to doubt myself.
Adria Kimbrough: So I'm thinking perhaps maybe let's do something a little different this year. Maybe we don't talk as much and let's be clear, the goal is the same. But instead taking that same energy and focusing it on what we are doing right now. What are we doing at this bootcamp? What are we going to be doing on Monday at practice?
As far as I know, Dillard is the only HBCU other than Howard who has made it to an opening round championship. And so I'm hopeful that there will be more teams, more HBCUs that will consider mock trial teams because I think it's a great activity. Moreover, it's rare for us to see teams that have African American students on the teams, even from other institutions. It's just not something that we see very often. We could espouse all the reasons why that might be but certainly it makes for a learning experience in a different kind of way for our students because they're often in these spaces where they are competing with and competing against students who are from different backgrounds, both racially, ethnically, geographically and otherwise.
Katie Phang: Do you think that you're preparing them in some way by managing expectations because I'm a practicing attorney, trial lawyer. You're a practicing attorney. And so you and I have been into the courtrooms. We as in women and women of color are most certainly still the minority in the legal profession. So do you think you are preparing them, like managing their expectations about what to expect because the percentage is woefully low for people of color in the legal profession?
Adria Kimbrough: Absolutely. I always remind them. I'm like, "This is what it's going to be guys. This is it. At least you, you have the community of being on a team with people who have similar experiences. You will be the only one." Every place that I have ever practiced, I have been the only one. Most of my practice has been in federal court.
Katie Phang: Yeah.
Adria Kimbrough: There's no women period, from any color. If you find one, to see another Black woman, even in places in the South where you have larger concentrations of Black people, you would think there may be some diversity showing up in certain spaces and it is not. And so I just remind them like, "This is what it's going to be." I think that's important. It goes back to the point I made earlier about believing that you, number one, deserve to be at the table and number two, that you can compete. And that to me is what being a part on this team means.
DeAndre Bell: I do feel as if New Orleans raised me, in some sense. Some people call this the city of sin. People say it's Las Vegas, regardless there's so much here that New Orleans has to offer. And when you feel the city, there's a different power and connection that you have here. So this is the Gentilly area. You will find that many HBCUs across the country are in quote unquote hoods. Howard is a good example. Dillard is a good example. So there are sometimes where we hear on campus, there may be a gunshot. There are some students who don't feel as safe but then you have students like me who are more than willing to be like, "Hey, I got you walk with me. Come with me." Things like that.
Student: Good morning Judge Reese.
Judge Kern Reese: Good morning. How are you?
Student: I'm great. How are you?
Judge Kern Reese: Not bad for a Saturday morning.
Student: Grand prize everyone. Grand prize.
Adria Kimbrough: At the very beginning, I knew very little. I knew nothing about... The Dillard Mock Trial Team is the first and only team I've ever coached. I did not do mock trial as an undergrad. I came to this just with an idea but not with a whole lot of experience. Thank God for Judge Reese. He had done some coaching at the law school level but had never done any coaching at the undergraduate level.
Judge Kern Reese: Okay. Let's unpack that. Let's start with unfair prejudice. In this particular case we have a case of arson and let's say there is a really graphic photograph of someone burned to a crisp, down to their bones. Where there's no human flesh left to discern because it's all charred. That sounds like a really gruesome photograph and I'm the prosecutor. I want to present this to the jury to make them absolutely hate the defendant. So Renee...
Adria Kimbrough: And so that first year we went to competition, I was like, "We missed this, this, this and this." So the whole time I was taking notes. I'm watching, I'm observing.
Judge Kern Reese: So Renee, what's your objection to this photograph?
Renee: Objection, your honor. More prejudicial than probative.
Judge Kern Reese: And why is that?
Renee: Because the probative value of this picture, it will inflame and mislead the jury if they were to see this.
Katie Phang [narration]: Adria and Judge Kern Reese play a familiar role for the students. They're family. Adria is the devoted and sometimes demanding mom, sometimes the protective big sister. And Judge Reese, well he's that wise old owl of an uncle who wears a sweater and comfortable shoes on his days off from Civil District Court in Orleans Parish.
Renee: ... were to see this.
Judge Kern Reese: And it's appealed to prejudice versus reason. And Michelle, so what's your response to that?
Katie Phang [narration]: Together, they don't get rattled and they hold their team to high standards.
Judge Kern Reese: Just drawing upon experience as a trial litigator, you always have to be able to maintain your composure. There'll be times when people will shock you. There'll be times when people will anger you. There will probably be times when cases can get unbelievably sad and you run through the range of human emotion. But you always have to be a professional and that's what I stress with them. You always have to be prepared to go forward.
Something I tell lawyers in court all the time, "I don't tell you how to prove your case. I just tell you to put your case on." Now if you think that the testimony of the coroner is sufficient to carry a burden of proof, which is proof beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal case, then you don't need the picture. But if you want to dot all the I's and cross all the T's and if the judge doesn't let it in but at least I put on my case. To try to establish that I have the testimony of the coroner and I have a picture of the person who died and the jury had the benefit of that to come to their decision. And I will have done everything that I could do to prove my case.
Katie Phang [narration]: Dillard, like more than 600 undergraduate mock trial teams across the country will be competing in the American Mock Trial Association's tournament. The team will practice and try the same exact case for the next eight months competing, refining, racking up points that will hopefully lead to a birth at the national championship in April of 2022.
Katie Phang: Amaya, you mentioned that you're the captain of this team. Can you briefly tell me, what is this mock case? What is this trial that you guys are going to be doing at Regionals? And what role are you going to play?
Amaya Ronczyk: So this is an aggravated arson case. We have a defendant who had spent about a year and a half building up this bar that he got ownership of. And with COVID happening, with people leaving or just the people in the community not responding well to the changes that he was making, he started losing money. And wasn't able to pay back a $1 million loan that he took out from the bank to make those renovations to the bar. He had until August 1st to pay back that loan or pay back a portion of that loan. And he couldn't but he knew that he had a fire insurance policy worth $1.5 million that would cover the cost. So the case is about whether or not he did this and what his motive would have been. I am the closing attorney who directs and crosses the experts on the prosecution side. And then on defense, I actually direct Lajeanne as both an expert and a character witness. And I cross an expert on that side as well.
Katie Phang: So to be clear, everybody on the team has to be prepared to switch hats and work as a prosecutor or a defense attorney. Is that right?
Amaya Ronczyk: Yes.
[slow, soft ethereal piano music]
Katie Phang [narration]: The roots of what is now called Dillard University date back to the end of the Civil War. The school was founded by the Methodist Episcopal Church and the American Missionary Association in New Orleans. The school was known as Straight University and in 1875, toward the end of the Reconstruction era had its own law school.
Walter Kimbrough: Walter Kimbrough, President of Dillard University in New Orleans. Part of the historic legacy of Dillard University, one of the precursor institutions Straight University, two of the graduates were behind the Plessy versus Ferguson case. So that's just a part of this institution that addressed those kinds of issues of racial justice.
Katie Phang [narration]: In 1896, Plessy versus Ferguson was brought before the United States Supreme Court. Homer Plessy was from New Orleans. He was arrested in an act of civil disobedience. He refused to sit in a separate train car for Black passengers. It was an action that could have easily gotten him lynched. Graduates from Straight University formed a citizens committee to fight the case and they hired white attorneys who argued that this law and others like it implied that Black people were inherently inferior and were second-class citizens. They lost that case by a vote of seven to one. The court's decision upheld, the so-called separate but equal doctrine, which cleared the path for racist politicians to enact vile and demeaning segregationist policies known as the Jim Crow laws throughout the South. Yet amid these hardships, the Plessy decision inspired generations of African American attorneys to fight for racial and social justice.
Adria Kimbrough: I'm the daughter of civil rights generation parents. I grew up in Mobile, Alabama. It is the home of the last slave ship that was illegally brought to this nation. It is also the home of the last reported clan lynching of Michael Donald in the eighties. There were things that were happening in the community that I grew up in and that just didn't feel right. I wanted to find a way to be a part of that solution. I think when the legal profession and the judiciary starts to look more like the nation, we may see different outcomes.
Katie Phang [narration]: The separate but equal law was overturned in 1954 in the Brown versus Board of Education case, a case argued by Chief Counsel Thurgood Marshall.
News Reporter: Shortly afternoon, Earl Warren, the Chief Justice of the United States began to read a unanimous opinion of the Supreme Court. Ruling in five cases, in which five Negro children sought the right to go to the same schools as white children, the court said, "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
Thurgood Marshall: We do believe that this decision in itself will encourage the people to take further steps without litigation in many areas.
Katie Phang [narration]: By that time, Dillard University no longer offered a law degree but the pre-law program and its relatively new mock trial team is a vital part of the university's mission.
Walter Kimbrough: So that history is I think very important. I think there are things that I've tried to do to make sure that we can make that history living. So for example, doing the pre-law program to me is a living way to remember what happened at Straight. I can always then reference it right back to Straight to say, we had a law school. We had these folks who were involved in Plessy versus Ferguson. So that becomes a natural linkage for us. I look for those kinds of ways of saying, how do we remember our history in a modern sense and move forward with it today?
Adria Kimbrough: Yes. So if you didn't get rules of evidence, there's some on the back table, in the mock trial room. They should be already whole punched. You can add it to your binder. We're going to go through these and then the lovely Lajeanne Shelton has some examples for us. I think on relevance. Yes?
Lajeanne Shelton: Yes.
Adria Kimbrough: Yes. Has some examples-
Walter Kimbrough: But I would argue some of our students if they went other places, first of all, they wouldn't even have this opportunity. They wouldn't know it existed. They might not feel comfortable to be on the team. So they've gotten the raw skills but then I think there's a level of confidence building that's being done because it's... To tell them that you can compete on this stage.
Adria Kimbrough: And any other questions about the itinerary or travel weekend? Okay.
Student: Wardrobe? As an attorney, do I have to wear a suit?
Adria Kimbrough: Yes. Well, I mean, we can talk more about it but I think that's preferred. There may be some variation that could work but the suit is the uniform.
Walter Kimbrough: We'll make sure that you're appropriately attired so you feel comfortable because we're 70% Pell Grant eligible students. So we have students who literally, they don't have a suit to compete in and Adria has given students her suits so they would have something appropriate to compete in.
Adria Kimbrough: Once we break out into groups I'm going to go get the mock trial closet. So I'll bring that in here for folks to take a look at. Renee?
Renee: Could you touch real quick on colors of suits that are acceptable and colors of undershirts or blazers and stuff that are-
Adria Kimbrough: Yeah. I think dark colors are best. Black, blue, gray are always safe. Outside of that-
Walter Kimbrough: So it's all of those things that would've been barriers at other places that they are like, "I can't be on this team. I don't have the ability to go or do." We take care of all those barriers so that they can really focus on developing the craft. And I think that becomes the value-added for them to be at a place like Dillard.
[percussive and bass medium-tempo groove]
DeAndre Bell: So I look at several lawyers throughout history, of course, Justice Thurgood Marshall. He was an alpha man, a very powerful man in terms of politics, even in church. So he is, of course, one of the main lawyers I look up to especially because of his profound speech, especially when it came to giving arguments, very profound at speaking, especially in court. Then of course you have Johnnie Cochran. I do look up to him. He is the quintessential lawyer in terms of defense and suave while doing it. You'll learn Miss Kimbrough... Well, the sport of mock trial doesn't really allow for that comfort from Black people, unfortunately but Johnnie Cochran was the type of person he would go up say what he had to say, sit back down and people be like, "Whoa, dude." My gosh-
Producer: What just happened?
DeAndre Bell: Exactly.
Student: Hello. Could you transfer me to the office of Senator Maria Cantwell? Thank you.
Walter Dixon IV: Hello. My name is Walter Dixon the Fourth. Can you transfer me to Senator Corey Booker? I'm calling today to ask that you support H.R.3294 / S. 1945, IGNITE HBCU Excellence Act. As an HBCU student, this bill will enhance the experience of me and my classmates on campus. Additionally, the IGNITE HBCU Excellence Act will be a critical step to bringing HBCU buildings and research facilities up to date and provide the dynamic talented and-
Caitlin Douglas: How are you all doing?
Group of students: Pretty good. Good. How are you?
Caitlin Douglas: Good. How are the calls going?
Student: They're going well.
Student: Haven't been able to really get to speak to any senators directly but we have had-
Caitlin Douglas: So today we're having a joint text and phone banking event where the students are going to be contacting senators and representatives in support of the HBCU IGNITE Act, which is going to help provide key infrastructure, repair and needs for HBCUs nationwide.
Caitlin Douglas: You all want to do that? You don't have to do it today but maybe I can create a Zoom-
Caitlin Douglas: Hey, I'm Caitlin Douglas. I am a transfer student. I am 27 years old. I am technically a sophomore but a junior. This is my first semester at Dillard. I joined the mock trial team because I'm a strategic thinker. I'm a logical person and I said, "What would help me socialize, help me learn the environment of Dillard?" So I do a lot of student engagement, Dillard students are brilliant. They're very intelligent, very smart, very mature. They keep their ear to the ground of what's going on at the other campuses too.
Caitlin Douglas: You all know Howard's protesting. We know Tuskegee's protesting too. I don't know if you all-
Student [inaudible 00:24:30] too.
Caitlin Douglas: Let's figure out these HBCUs that are really vocal about the conditions at their schools and see if we can connect with them.
Student: And we can amplify.
Student: And amplify it and do like a-
Student: We can do a video or like a-
Caitlin Douglas: I am heavily involved in activism back home in Shreveport Louisiana. After my first experience with undergraduate studies, I took about a four-year hiatus. I was smart as a whip but because I was depressed and I didn't have that support and then I had hardships. I had two family members and a childhood friend died, one was killed. My cousin was shot two weeks ago. He now will never have the tip of his thumb and they had to remove his appendix. He's a truck driver. My cousin, that same cousin, has been beaten by the police just because they got the wrong guy. My sister's boyfriend was murdered in front of her. I had to go to the scene and see that. I look at it as I'm running towards this direction and then just obstacles are pushing me back to Shreveport.
Talk about how we can get more in their face. You all want to do that? I'm a troublemaker to a lot of people especially because before I worked with Power Coalition back home. I'm from Shreveport, Louisiana. I was very heavily involved in protesting, marching and grassroots activism. And so I'm deemed pretty aggressive most of the time because I stand tenn what I believe in-
Producer: It's good trouble.
Caitlin Douglas: Yeah. It's a good trouble. I make good trouble.
[interior of car, driving]
DeAndre Bell: I just push the button for the ticket.
Producer: Okay. So where are we now?
DeAndre Bell: So this is the hotel parking lot. Unfortunately, Dillard students, we're working with it. We're working with what we have but we have to walk just a little bit to get to the actual hotel. I hope you all don't mind.
Producer: That makes sense. That's fine.
[exterior, daytime, city streets of New Orleans, walking]
DeAndre Bell: Downtown is a walk and I will say, I like to walk so I'm not really too bothered by it because it's difficult. You walk down the street, now what you don't see while it's daytime is there are homeless people that do sleep alongside this. So it's dangerous because it can get dark really fast. But with that in mind, I feel like a lot of students have begun to use some buddy system, walking in pairs, driving in pairs, things of that nature just to ensure that people are safe.
[hotel room key card, enter hotel room]
This right here is my room. It's pretty clean. I ain't have no problem with that but this is where I lay my head at night.
It's literally just a standard hotel room, no amenities necessarily for students or anything like that. Just simple living quarters. Your mother won't sit on the bed. But simple living quarters, usual things but I try to make it as close to home as possible. I got some seasoning right here, a couple of sauce packets and things in case I get nuggets or whatever the case may be. A couple of cups. So whenever I go out, take a little souvenir cup put it right here. Students at Dillard were allowed to bring some of their items from the dorm to the hotel. So I brought my microwave. I brought a second refrigerator because the one here is absolutely tiny and this is just some leftover food from last night. Obviously, drawers right here. I don't necessarily use them all too often because I don't want to just have stuff sitting here. But I do have like my belts and my ties for whatever, mock trial prime example, it's my little tie box.
I have a bunch of different colored ties and things of that nature. I do have some snacks right here, a drawer. So I can explain these are not all mine. These are also some of my friends. Again, there are times where I have to link up with them outside of school. So this is our snack drawer in case we need to get a bite to eat or something before we leave. Something like that. Disregard that. I promise those are not all mine. This is my quote unquote library if you will. I love to read.
Producer: Give us a few titles.
DeAndre Bell: Absolutely. So we have Black Power, which is a book by Kwame Ture, Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton. Part of my politics is helping Black people, just like everybody else is getting helped. And so to have that background would be very essential moving forward.
Barack Obama. Yes. I got this book for my birthday actually. So I started telling my family, I wanted to run for President. Man, Barack Obama has been a big influence for me in terms of doing that. The man did it all. My dad once said and I disagree with this but he was like, "If Barack Obama was perfect and everybody had a problem with him, then you're going to have to work even harder because you're not as perfect." And he's right. Absolutely. But it's like Barack Obama, wasn't perfect either. And the promise land is a prime example of that. And now look at him, former President of the United States, he was a lawyer. He was doing all these big things. Naturally, it's some shoes that I'd like to fill into.
Adria Kimbrough: The departure time is set for three and the departure will be in front of the bookstore. I guess there's a slight chance-
Katie Phang [narration]: It's Halloween weekend and you can feel the excitement in the air. The team's first competition is coming up at the University of Mississippi, Ole Miss. This is their first in-person tournament in more than a year. For a lot of the students, it's their first time ever competing without Zoom. It's a big deal.
Adria Kimbrough: It takes about five hours or so to get to Oxford, which is where Ole Miss is located. There will be a midpoint stop for dinner, based upon our calculations, Jackson, Mississippi appears to be a midway point. So we'll be scouting out places to eat in Jackson but probably things that will be relatively-
Katie Phang [narration]: Adria is sending two teams to Mississippi. Team B is led by Amaya and Lajeanne. Team A features DeAndre and Caitlin who will play an expert witness. Both teams will be coached by Judge Reese and Alicia Frison.
Alicia Frison: The biggest thing is gelling and becoming incredibly comfortable in a courtroom. It's supposed to be a space that's supposed to beat professionalism into you and make you feel like you don't belong. Especially for Black people and people of color it's a space institutionally rooted in disenfranchising people of color. And I really intentfully wanted to be a part of this team to help train future Black litigators to embrace that space. You belong here and we're going to make it work. It rewrites history. It takes back all that strength from our ancestors.
Katie Phang [narration]: The Dillard team is the first to arrive and they take their seats right down in front, something unthinkable a generation ago.
News Reporter: James H. Meredith is formally enrolled at the University of Mississippi ending one chapter in the federal government's efforts to desegregate the university. The town of Oxford is an armed camp following riots that accompany the registration of the first Negro in the university's 118-year history. Much of this film record was destroyed when our cameraman Gordon Yoder was attacked but he did salvage pictures of Governor Ross Barnett at the scene. The governor fought the court order long and bitterly-
Judge Kern Reese: Obviously, 50 years ago, well, maybe go back to about 1963, we wouldn't have been here at all. That's a given and actually, I was a child, got... Caught at the tail in the segregation and some of its aftermath and it was not pretty. It was humiliating, dehumanizing, embarrassing, mortifying and every other superlative you can come up with.
Host Student 1: All right, it’s about 9:05. Ready to start opening ceremonies.
[crowd applause in auditorium]
Host Student 2: So first off, I just want to say... Give a big thank you for everyone who decided to come to our tournament this year. We're really excited to have y'all here. And thank you for coming to the Second Annual Chucky Mullins Spooktacular Invitational. First, a few things, the University of Mississippi does have a mask protocol here. We have six rooms.
Host Student 1: With that being said, we're going to start with the challenge order. So Rhodes A, who would you like to challenge?
Rhodes Student: We would like to challenge the Universit
Host Student 1: Okay. And UT Knox which side would you like to be?
UT Knox Student: [inaudible 00:33:34] defense.
Host Student 1: Okay. And that leads us to Dillard A, who would you like to challenge?
DeAndre Bell: Ole Miss.
Host Student 1: All right. And which side of the case would you like to be?
DeAndre Bell: Prosecution.
Host Student 1: All right. And then UAB?
UAB Student: [inaudible 00:33:49] challenge Dillard B.
Host Student 1: Okay. And which side of the case would you like to be?
[crowd of students chat and disperse]
Lajeanne Shelton: It's our first time being back and I just really miss seeing people in real life. So we just wanted to introduce ourselves just to get to know everyone.
Student: How long have you been doing mock trials?
Lajeanne Shelton: We've been doing mock trials since we got to Dillard. So this is our last time.
Student: Last time, we're glad to have you here.
Lajeanne Shelton: I'm supposed to [inaudible 00:34:17].
Student: What your name?
Amaya Ronczyk: Amaya.
Amaya Ronczyk: We go to Dillard University. Yeah.
Lajeanne Shelton: And what's your name?
Lajeanne Shelton: McKenzie? Nice to meet you McKenzie. Hi.
Lily: My name is Lily.
Lajeanne Shelton: Lily?
Lajeanne Shelton: Lily, my name is Lajeanne-
Lily: Lajeanne that's so cool.
Lajeanne Shelton: Lajeanne here. There have been times when we went to competitions and as an all-Black team, when there are other Black people within like all white teams, being all Black team is going to stand out and those people are going to gravitate to you naturally. People will be like, I've been trying to be an attorney for the past two competitions and I've been trying out but they've been just sticking me in this witness role. Or I'll try to be an expert witness and they just want me to play the cook and make it about like Southern-style cooking or soul food cooking. You have people come up to us saying I'm being placed in this box. It's not what we're noticing is but what we're being told.
DeAndre Bell: If you would bow your heads, close your eyes, pray in your culture as I do. Father God, we come to you right now saying thank you Father. Thank you for giving us the season. Thank you for delivering us from all sorts of hurt, harm and danger. Father God we thank you, for bringing us to this courthouse. We thank you for this competition. We thank you for the growth that we've had and the journey that we've been on. We thank you, Father God. But we are here now. Amen.
Dillard team: Amen.
DeAndre Bell: Amen. Lord.
Dillard team: Ready? Yes.
Rhodes Team: Blood makes the grass grow. Kill, kill, kill. Blood makes the grass grow. Kill, kill, kill. Blood makes the grass grow. Kill, kill, kill. Blood makes the grass grow. Kill, kill, kill. Murder on three. Murder on three. One, two, three. Murder.
Katie Phang [narration]: With teams from all over the south competing. The Ole Miss courtrooms are positively buzzing. For Dillard, the action bounces from one courtroom to the next. Team A is squaring off against Ole Miss.
Witness: I mentioned earlier.
DeAndre Bell: So you have limited experience in fraud and that's because you failed the certified fraud examiner accreditation. Isn't that correct?
Witness: Yes but that credential wasn't necessary.
DeAndre Bell: Now just to clarify, to be a forensic financial investigator, you have to have expert level knowledge and fraud. Isn't that right?
Witness: Yes. But I also... I did get the certified financial forensics and I did that completing the exam and doing our 5,000 hours in the field, as I mentioned earlier.
DeAndre Bell: Thank you for that but my question was very specific. You failed the certified fraud examiner test but you need expert level fraud knowledge to testify about fraud. Isn't that correct?
Witness: Yes. But as I mentioned earlier, that credential wasn't necessary.
DeAndre Bell: Thank you, your honor. I have nothing further.
Katie Phang [narrator]: And in her debut as a witness, Caitlin Douglas is acting out her role as the fire inspector.
Competitor: You're being paid by the defense to be here today.
Caitlin Douglas: Yes but that's standard in my field.
Katie Phang: And in her debut as a witness, Caitlin Douglas is acting out the role of the fire inspector.
S Competitor: And your job was to review Dr. Weber's report.
Caitlin Douglas: It was to review his investigation. Yes.
Competitor: You also visited the scene didn't you?
Caitlin Douglas: I did.
Competitor: But this was three months after the fire had occurred, correct?
Caitlin Douglas: That's correct. And it actually made the scene a little better to view because I was able to look at everything that had transpired over a course of time.
Competitor: But within that three months, alterations could have been made-
Katie Phang [narration]: Down the hall Dillard's upper class members Lajeanne and Amaya are already in fighting form.
Amaya Ronczyk: May it please the court, opposing counsel, members of the jury. These photos that I have in my hands and that were presented before you earlier in this trial show you exactly how beloved firefighter Jaylen Williams died on August 1st, 2020. The damages in these photos show how the fire was started in the kitchen by an accelerant found in paint thinner. These damages show, every horrific detail.
I think it's important that there's a place for lawyers that work with empathy, that sympathize with their clients that understand that there's more behind the story. And I think whenever you get in that courtroom, it's important that the person that's sitting at the defendant's table, that their story is portrayed in a way that makes the jury or the judge empathize or place themselves in their shoes.
but what these photos can't show you is the real damage that happened that night. You see, when you go to Breckenridge County Fire Department, you'll find Jaylen Williams locker empty. When you go to his home, you'll see that his seat at the table is gone. And when you talk to his parents, they'll tell you how they'll never see his smiling face again. It was easy for the defendant to forget that when she lit the match at Chuggy's, someone else's life could go up in flames with it. It was easy for her to forget because the only thing she was worried about-
[in another courtroom]
Lajeanne Shelton: During trial today, there was a story painted to you by the prosecution. And I just want to go over that story. They wanted to tell me that Dakota Sutcliffe walked around their business and looked at everything they poured into it. Pouring into the lights for the business. Having a new electrical box installed, redoing the floor, revamping the bar, even opening a patio area and a downstairs seating area. Decided to open a can of paint thinner and spread it all way around.
And then after spreading that paint thinner around, they want you to believe that as she looked upon this place, she decided to take a match and light it. Not only do they want you to believe that she is the person who could have done this and that she wanted her place to burn down. They want you to believe that she would go to put it out. She wanted this place burned down but instead she went to the firehouse to stop the fire. Ladies and gentlemen, that is a story. There are three things that you heard today from the prosecution. They talked about debt. They talked about distress and they talked about death more than the three elements they had to prove. But there's one thing they left out and that's doubt. Now let's talk about that doubt that we see....
It's in the back of my head like this is the last, this is your last. The first time you're getting in the gate for your last time of being on this team. And of course that's always going to -- that's looming over this whole entire competition and you want to do your best of course. But I also want to be in the moment and enjoy this competition. I don't want to be so caught up in the competing aspect, like the competitiveness. I want to also have fun because my trial should be fun. It's so fun.
Now when you go into that jury room and you deliberate over the evidence that you have saw today and you see that doubt, you see the very thing. The prosecution has tried to pull the wool over your eyes for. And we ask that you delivered the only just verdict, not just for Jaylen Williams but Dakota Sutcliffe. That you find Dakota Sutcliffe not guilty because the prosecution didn't do the job for Jaylen Williams. They didn't wait the smoke to clean. Thank you.
Competitor: Yes, your Honor.
Katie Phang [narration]: The judges in both rooms give high praise to the Dillard team.
Judge 1: We had some good attorney exchanges, Anthony and Lajeanne.
Lajeanne Shelton: Lajeanne.
Judge 1: Lajeanne. Sorry.
Lajeanne Shelton: It's okay.
Judge 1: Okay. I'm sure you get it, occasionally. You all had a really good back and forth there on the 803-15 witnesses. I enjoyed the witnesses. Make sure you keep eye contact with the judges. Make sure you slow down. Some of you speak really quickly. For us Southern born lived people, sometimes we don't talk that fast. So just slow it down a little bit but I thought y'all did a really good job. I think you're all doing quite well.
Judge 2: Opening for the prosecution was good. And it would occurred to me at that point in time that I wish we had jurors. And there was a moment where I thought about asking everybody to go sit over there, going to the prosecution's first witness, very vibrant witness and enjoyed that thought. It was a very strong cross examination. I really like when you're... “I'm sorry. Thank you. But that's not exactly what I ask. Let me reword that question.” No, I love that. That was great. What a great way to deal with an evasive witness. I was very impressed with that. On the other hand, impeachment with the affidavit, didn't quite go as well as you planned. So these are little tidbits on top of the basic thing, which is you guys did a great job. Good luck. Rest of the way.
[Students disperse from courtroom]
Alicia Frison Listen up, listen up. Everybody get your notepads, come with me. I just need some hands to go get the boxes.
Student: That's our food right there.
Alicia Frison: Yeah.
Katie Phang [narration]: The team spills out onto some of the couches in the hallways while lunch boxes are passed around.
Amaya Ronczyk: I'm trying to memorize the stuff for the next route. You want to do one run through Lajeanne while we're eating lunch.
Lajeanne Shelton: I think I should tell you something.
Amaya Ronczyk: What?
Lajeanne Shelton: The young lady who was the middle attorney, she said, she really appreciated how you were all Black woman team of color as attorneys.
Amaya Ronczyk: All Black woman team of color.
Lajeanne Shelton: She said, I liked how all your attorneys were women. It made her feel really empowered as a woman to see all. She said, I feel really intimidated by men in this space and just to see all women attorney team and especially women of color, she said it was really impactful.
Amaya Ronczyk: That's great.
Alicia Frison: Especially coming from her school too. That's nice to see. Yeah.
Caitlin Douglas: Let me catch you up breath. Caitlin Douglas. I think first of all, I'm very proud of my team. All the practice really showed up today and I think we got a chance to work out some of those nerves between leaving campus, congregating on the bus and then getting into the hotels and getting comfortable and settled. So I'm very proud of the outcomes. Lajeanne and DeAndre have crossed me way harder in practice. They make it to where you're prepared. And so I feel like “You all are competing at the law school level” comment. I feel like it's because we have team members who push us and that's important for somebody like me.
Katie Phang [narration]: But their coaches are not about to let them get too overconfidence.
Alicia Frison: When you let that sit there and rest, you let them set the tone for what's going on. Your judge doesn't know your law, your judge isn't judging that. They're going like, "Okay, the state's bringing their case. This is how we're going to go." Shut it down. Do not respond back to their relevance issue on their ground. They have to prove that the purpose was to defraud if he burned down his own building. And you ended right there and you make them look stupid by letting them know, like you don't even know what... And I would walk all over them in the closing.
Student Yes, ma’am.
Judge Kern Reese: This is the first round of the first tournament. So there is always room for improvement.
DeAndre Bell: Absolutely.
Caitlin Douglas: Right.
Judge Kern Reese: I thought some things were done very well. Some things were done okay. Some things need some work. I think that from a technical proficiency standpoint we did well, thought you handled the objections. Well, a lot of objections weren't made.
Caitlin Douglas: That's what I said.
Lajeanne Shelton I didn't expect a whole lot from the very first competition though. I expected people to just lay low, see how it goes.
Judge Kern Reese: Well, you will come up against teams that will be well prepared.
DeAndre Bell: Especially at this first competition.
Judge Kern Reese: This is the first blood.
Student: This [inaudible 00:46:46] your toe in the water.
Judge Kern Reese: It gets more interesting as we go.
Judge Kern Reese: Overall, I was not displeased with the performance because if I was, I would let you know.
Caitlin Douglas: Yeah.
Amaya Ronczyk: We know.
Lajeanne Shelton: We know.
Caitlin Douglas: That’s good enough for us! But we love it.
Katie Phang [narration]: As the tournament moves on to the second day, Dillard is clearly stacking up the wins.
DeAndre Bell: This is DeAndre. Yes, I know what my team score is. I think everyone will be pleased with the outcome. My team, me, Caitlin, everybody is 6 and 0, meaning we won both ballots for all three rounds. So it's amazing.
Katie Phang [narration]: And you can feel the confidence and the focus coming through from their team huddles.
Amaya Ronczyk: Please confirm my suspicion. Madox does not say that he spilled that, did he?
DeAndre Bell: No he does not, I just read it-
Lajeanne Shelton: We need to be ready to impeach.
DeAndre Bell: Yes.
Amaya Ronczyk: Yeah. You're going to do that.
DeAndre Bell: And Tobin-
Amaya Ronczyk: You did really good, Alex. You did good. You were a little combative and you know that.
Caitlin Douglas: They're going to flip.
Amaya Ronczyk: [inaudible 00:48:06] need to make any comments, you all focus on this [inaudible 00:48:07]. I'm going to practice this [inaudible 00:48:08].
Student: Okay. Which one is it?
Amaya Ronczyk: It's this one.
Lajeanne Shelton: This.
Amaya Ronczyk: Yeah. You were hired by defense, correct?
Lajeanne Shelton: Yes. I was.
Amaya Ronczyk: You were hired to review the record of officer Weber, right?
Lajeanne Shelton: Yes. I was.
Amaya Ronczyk: You would agree with me that officer Weber made a determination of -- Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. I just thought of something. They're saying Madox did it. And Madox spilled the accelerant. They can't say that because of the fire wasn't accelerant. What do we do? Do we mention that in closing?
Amaya Ronczyk: I think we should go in early. I need to show you those documents.
Student: That would be time now [inaudible 00:48:51].
[students walk into courtroom from hallway]
Katie Phang: So I read a really interesting clip about or about you, Lajeanne, about your voice and the tenor, the tone, the volume and how that gets construed and how there's a judgment that comes. Especially for women when it comes to how we use our voice, literally sometimes. How do you use your voice? So as a small anecdote, I was in court one time with a judge and this judge knew me very well. And I was cross-examining a defendant, as you guys know, was very rare in criminal court because defendants usually don't take the stand but he did. And I was cross-examining him. And it was just a probation violation hearing. So there was no jury, it was just the judge but it was a packed courtroom. And the judge because the Public Defender objected and said that I was badgering the witness, which was really the defendant.
And the judge goes, "I'm not really going to sustain that. But Ms. Phang, I'd asked that you stay behind the podium." Because I had come out from behind the podium to be able to approach the witness box where the defendant was testifying. So what I did was because it wasn't bolted down, I just took the podium with me. So I moved the podium closer to the witness box and I looked at the judge and I said, "I'm still behind the podium judge." So my question for you Lajeanne is, do you feel offended when it's brought to your attention that you sound aggressive or does it just water off your back? Because you know that part of that is just it's perception, it's because you're a woman maybe because you're a woman of color and somebody has a problem with how you're using your voice.
Lajeanne Shelton: That is an excellent question, Katie. Because we talk about this so often, I'll bring up a small anecdote to just go into how I personally feel about it. At a tournament, keep in mind that my co-counsel is all women and we're all Black women. And I think at that time, every witness we had was also a woman too. So there's these three female attorneys, Black female attorneys. And Amaya says this all the time. She's like, Lajeanne is always going to do her best when she's going up against a white man. Like that's what they were. And I put my poker face on the whole time and I do what I have to do.
At the end of trial, one of the opposing counsels, this young man, he comes up to me, he shakes my hand really aggressively and says, "You're literally so scary. You are so scary." I'm trying not to like react too much to it. And I'm like, "I hope not in a bad way." And he's like, "No, not really. It's just you were really going after what you want." And then he is like, "Maybe you just know too much, you just know a lot and that's just crazy." And I'm like, "Okay, so am I not supposed to know enough? Maybe you need to know what I know." The comments come. It's not going to, it's not my first comment like that, it's not going to be my last. Those comments like that, we get all the time.
You just realize it and you take it and you very much take it as a compliment, because that's basically what it is, they were threatened by you, in some way, shape or form. They weren't expecting you to give the performance that you gave. So that's them, that's all on them. So yeah, it hurts in the moment. But then you remember but that's life. I'm going to get this regardless. So I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing. I still got a 10 on that, on whatever the part he said I scared him at, that's all that matters.
...a special element that was referenced in that closing. Ladies and gentlemen you heard today that, that very witness has no certification to be able to examine fraud and to see if fraud was around in any evidence they brought today. And even with that, they got up on this stand and told you I saw no evidence of fraud. I looked over a loan statement. I looked over a fire insurance policy. I looked at every single transaction of Chuggy's and I saw no fraud. Ladies and gentlemen to fraud is an element in the case. And they brought forward a witness that disproves that element. And last but not least they brought to you Alex Silva, Breckeridge County firefighter. And while we do sympathize with Mr. Silva and the family of Jaylen Williams, he told...
Judge: Overall, was great job, Mr. Bell, you're speaking rhythm is outstanding. If you ever decide to not go to law school, I think you could be a preacher.
Lajeanne Shelton: [laughter] He’s the deacon of our team.
Judge: I'm telling you, man, just your rhythm and pacing is outstanding, is amazing. And so if you choose to not do law, you can find a vocation man. I can't think of any other general comments. You all did well, keep it up, keep up the good work and good luck the rest of the season.
Judge 2: What school is prosecution from?
[students disperse from courtroom]
Troy Skipworth: I'm Troy Skipworth. I'm from the University of North Alabama and Florence, Alabama. Dillard, the kids always come with such joy. You can tell they enjoy what they do. They enjoy being there. They enjoy the opportunity and that comes across in what they do. And so they're a joy to judge in that sense. And so you don't find that from all the teams but they always bring the energy. So I enjoy judging them.
Judge 3: Everybody did great but I will call both of you out the two on the end. Amaya, is it Amaya, is that right?
Amaya Ronczyk: Yes.
Judge 3: And then Ella, I think y'all were excellent overall,
Judge 4: But yeah, same thing. Closing is very polished, good job. Both you all very good job. They're mostly about intonation where to start vocally instead of starting [inaudible 00:55:55] here or way down on here, [inaudible 00:55:55] start in the middle. That kind of stuff. Think peaks and valleys. Vocal intensity. Because you're both very good public speakers but you just need to know where to start. Because if you start all the way up here vocally, whether it's with your tone, whether it's with your volume, anything like that, the only place you can go is down. Whereas if you start all the way down here, the only place you can go is up. So start at a happy medium so you have more room to fluctuate as you're talking. So and break!
Lajeanne Shelton: Thank you.
Judge 3: I love doing this, it's great. It's really enjoyable though. Seeing teams like you all actually prepare and do stuff, flesh out theories, flesh out characters, stuff like that. But the thing is teams like you all make it worth it showing up and actually being engaging, being entertaining, stuff like that. Because we don't want to be bored to tears for three hours. So thank you all for that. That was really nice.
Judge Kern Reese: The saying goes, stick a fork in this, we’re done. This was in the books. All right, come on let's go down
Katie Phang [narration]: As the tournament comes to a close, all of the exhausted students pile into the auditorium for the closing ceremonies and award announcements.
Host Student 3: You can actually breathe easy now, this competition is over with and it's time for closings. So get excited.
Host Student 2: We actually had no 18 rank top attorneys. So we go straight into 19. With 19 ranks from team The Conjuring, Dillard A, on the defense side, DeAndre Bell. [crowd applause and cheers]
Also with 19 ranks on the prosecution side from team Insidious, Dillard B, Amaya Ronczyk. [crowd applause and cheers]
And finally we had a perfect scoring attorney on the defense side, Dillard B, Lajeanne Shelton. [crowd applause and cheers]
We had two 19 ranked witnesses. They are actually both from the same team on defense with 19 ranks from team Insidious, Dillard B, Sterling Bond. [crowd applause and cheers]
And that second ninth team ranked witness also won an attorney award from team Insidious, Dillard B, Lajeanne Shelton. [crowd applause and cheers]
We had one witness who received a perfect score on the defense side with 20 ranks, from Dillard A, Caitlin Douglas. [crowd applause and cheers]
Congratulations to all of our top witnesses and our attorneys. Now we're going to move on to the Spirit of AMTA Award. I love it. It shows that you are a kind team that you care about others, that people like to work with you. And that you're just a good sport. So it's honestly my favorite award. I think it's the best award to receive. We had one team receive it and that would be Dillard B. [crowd applause and cheers]
Host Student 1: So at this tournament, we are giving out three team awards but we do first and Honorable Mention that we'd like to announce with five and a half ballots, a CS of 13 and a half and a PD of 28 that is Rhodes B, Friday the 13th. [crowd applause and cheers] In third place, Dillard A, the Conjuring. [crowd applause and cheers] And in second place Rhodes C, The Purge. [crowd applause and cheers] And finally first place the winner of this year's Second Annual Chucky Mullins Spooktacular version of the Invitational, Poltergeist, Tennessee. [crowd applause and cheers]
Student: [crowd chatter] I'm so proud of you. Congratulations!
Judge Kern Reese: So proud of you.
Caitlin Douglas: I was so happy [inaudible 01:00:36].
Amaya Ronczyk: Thank you so much.
Caitlin Douglas: Thank You so much. I really am surprised.
Judge Kern Reese: If we had had our top performers all on the same team.
Judge Kern Reese: But we want to teach the younger ones how to do it right. So we broke the team up and put inexperienced people with the veterans so they learn.
Producer I was a little surprised but...
[Dillard team walks towards team bus]
Lajeanne Shelton: Even though we drop those two ballots, obviously more work needs to be done. I love that. I'm not upset about the two ballots we [inaudible 01:01:20] because I can see where we need to improve.
Alicia Frison: And it's good that we're having these moments early on, because, we're getting to have a temperature of what's going on, where we need to focus our energy. So this was great. This is great.
Lajeanne Shelton: But I'm going to go call my dad.
Judge Kern Reese: Call him and tell him. He deserves a more proud moment.
Alicia Frison: My God.
Judge Kern Reese: Yes, indeed.
DeAndre Bell: I am overjoyed admittedly. Now I do have some reservations in terms of the last round. You all were in there. So you all heard what was going on. I could have sworn, the team could have sworn that we were about to go in there and take the first place trophy with the perfect score. It's going to be interesting with looking at the balance, especially reviewing them with Judge Reese but all in all I'm proud of the team. We all came with the mission and that mission was to grow and we did just that.
Producer: So where are you taking them now?
Judge Kern Reese: Home. We got a five-hour ride in front of us and we got to stop and get something to eat somewhere. So we'll probably get home around midnight
Producer: And what happens tomorrow?
Judge Kern Reese Tomorrow they get a day off and get ready for our next tournament, which is in two weeks.
Dillard team: Bye Ole Miss!
[bus drives away]
[theme music, hip-hop motivational groove]
Ellie Sands: Yes, your Honor. The plaintiff has a few housekeeping matters to attend to firstly would your honor like a courtesy copy of the plaintiff's notice of appearance?
Judge: No, I don't need one.
Ellie Sands: Would your Honor like a brief recitation of the facts for today's case?
Judge: Not as a housekeeping matter. No.
Ellie Sands: Additionally, your Honor. Permission to have local rules constructively read into the record.
Judge: Local rules do not need to be read into the record.
Katie Phang [narration]: That's next time on Class Action. Class Action is a production of iHeartRadio and Sound Argument. Created, produced, written and edited by Kevin Huffman and Lisa Gray. Additional story production by Jennifer Swann, Kristin Cabrera, Jason Foster and Wendy Nardi. Executive producers are Taylor Chicoine and Katrina Norville. Sound design editing and mixing by Evan Tyor and Taylor Chicoine. This episode had additional field production by Nikka Troy and Matt Wymer. For more podcasts from iHeartRadio visit the iHeartRadio App, Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your favorite shows.