California State University, Dominguez Hills’ (CSUDH) prosecutors had won their case, as well as the last of the four rounds their eight-student team had competed in at the 2016 regionals of the American Mock Trial Association (AMTA) tournament on Feb. 27-28 at Claremont McKenna College.
The team did not win the round simply by winning the case, but based on the number of points all the team members had accumulated for their performances during the round.
The round was particularly significant for Gabriella DiCaprio, a Pasadena resident who is majoring in English and minoring in political science at CSUDH. As she did during the other three rounds they competed in during the tournament, her performance impressed the judges enough to raise her score to 17 points overall, and lock her in as a “Top Regional Attorney” in the entire competition.
“I wasn’t expecting to win top attorney. Then they announced Cal State Dominguez Hills, and we were all in shock,” said DiCaprio. “Then they said my name. It was such a surreal moment, and I thought it was funny because my last name is DiCaprio and Leonardo DiCaprio won his Oscar that night. So when they called my name they said, “And the Oscar goes to…”
The AMTA’s regionals are the first round of the organization’s annual national tournament. This year it hosted 25 tournaments across the country in February, and approximately 550 mock trial teams from nearly 350 universities.
It was only CSUDH’s second year competing in the tournament.
At the regionals, each team serves as both prosecutors and prosecuted witnesses/defendants. The top teams from each tournament advance and compete in the Opening Round Championship Series (ORCS), the second round of the AMTA’s national tournament structure, which takes place this month.
CSUDH did not qualify for the ORCS, but Salvatore Russo, assistant professor of political science at CSUDH, was very proud of the students’ performance, particularly given the caliber of their competition, that the team was down two members, and because most of last year’s team had graduated.
“I think it is very important for our students to compete and succeed against top four-year colleges that are traditionally seen as being prestigious and elite with well-respected law schools,” said Russo. “It’s great knowing that Cal State Dominguez students can go up there and take them down. It means a lot to my students to go against the likes of Loyola Marymount and sweep them on both judges’ ballots.”
CSUDH’s mock trial program is offered through the Department of Political Science to students in all majors. Created by Russo, the program teaches the foundations of civil and criminal litigation, as well as oral communication skills that are critical tools for those applying to law school. Students learn the basics of trial advocacy, including preparing opening and closing statements, how to make objections, and how to get evidence admitted at trial.
DiCaprio believes it is the simulated real-world experience gained from mock trials that give an edge to students, like her, when they apply to law school, and in their professional careers, no matter their fields.
“Having the opportunity to compete and to see what really happens in the courtroom is the perfect experience,” she said. “You learn teamwork skills, public speaking skills—you learn to speak in front of so many people that I think everyone should try this. It just really boosts your confidence.”
Other CSUDH team members were ranked well during the mock trials, they include Kevin Martinez, president of the Pre-Law Society on campus, and Arnaud Lukombo, a political science major who serves as president of the Association of Political Science Students.
“[During mock trials] I learn that lawyers need to be polyvalent and perceptive. I learn how to feel the witness and adopt to that, how to understand the psychology of the witness and own it to stay in character,” said Lukombo, a Carson resident. “Our outstanding performances were the result of effective teaching and student dedication.”
DiCaprio concurs with Lukombo about the teaching, and gives Russo much of the credit for her passion for law and drive to become a practicing attorney. She plans to attend law school after graduating from CSUDH, and aspires to eventually become a judge.
“When I first went to a Pre-Law Society event, he [Russo] was one of the speakers. They always joke around in pre-law that Dr. Russo’s speech is designed to put a scare in you, and to ingrain in you that law school is tough,” said DiCaprio, who is now vice president of the society. “He wants people to decide then if it is something that they really want to do. It didn’t scare me off one bit. In fact, it made me more excited about the field.”