It was a life-or-death case. Jordan Ryder stood accused of pushing his daughter off a cliff during a hiking trip. When the trial started, nobody knew how it would end.
Both sides came prepared to make compelling arguments, having been counseled in advance by two alumnae of Furman’s Mock Trial program, Grace Cheney ’21 and Allyson Stevens ’21.
They had to advise the participants over Zoom, from a distance – about 6,600 miles – through seven time zones and a few language barriers. The entire courtroom contingent, including the defendant, witnesses, judge and attorneys, consisted of students from the Faga’itua High School in Pago Pago, American Samoa. And the proceedings, as the name “mock trial” suggests, were not legally binding.
In a moment, the results of that trial. But first, the facts:
The transpacific trial prep started with a visit to Furman’s Mock Trial Website.
“I got this inquiry from Pago Pago,” remembers Glen Halva-Neubauer, Dana Professor of Politics and International Affairs and founder of Furman’s Mock Trial program. “And my first thought was, ‘What time is it in Pago Pago?’”
The request came from two high school teachers who were Googling for information about conducting a mock trial for their students. Kaylla Turituri and Brittany Hisatake landed on Furman’s Top Mock program, which has taught advanced trial advocacy skills to high school students for 19 years. The teachers registered as coaches, and the planning began for the first mock trial ever held in the history of the island of American Samoa.
“As Professor Glen explained more about Furman and its Top Mock program, we were very interested in obtaining his help to conduct these types of competitions here on the island,” says Turituri. “We were able to set up a Zoom meeting within 24 hours and work around the time difference.”
Time would be a challenge in more ways than one. “They wanted to teach Mock Trial skills in a month,” Halva-Neubauer says. “It would usually take a month to just get them up to speed on the rudiments, but I thought, hey, this is just too cool. These people are on the other side of the world, and they reached out to us. This isn’t how we have done it in the past, but we are not so inflexible that we cannot envision a different way to think about conducting a mock trial.”
Halva-Neubauer knew two experienced students to lead the classes: Cheney and Stevens.
“Last summer, both Grace and I were counselors for the virtual Top Mock experience, so both of us knew how to teach high schoolers about Mock Trial in a way that is accessible,” says Stevens, Top Mock’s lead counselor. “None of the students we had before were from U.S. territories, so we were very interested in that.”
The pair worked over two and a half weeks, from mid-May to early June. Zoom calls with the teachers took place one to three times a week, and the counselors would sit in on the classes at least once a week.
Although English was their second language, the students spoke it proficiently, says Stevens – but they had the same trouble even native speakers do unraveling the often-bewildering language of the American legal system.
“Miss Turituri did ask us if we could create the position of an interpreter for the witnesses and attorneys in our mock trial, to speak in their native language” she says.
Sessions included introducing the basics of mock trials, showing videos of actual court cases, role-playing different courtroom officials, and developing the script for the students’ final project, Midlands v. Ryder.
Both alumnae say they want to visit the island in person someday.
“My favorite part was learning more about American Samoa,” Cheney says. “Every time I left teaching, I found myself Googling and learning everything there is to know, because I think the U.S. territories are not talked about very often.”
The students took Midlands v. Ryder to the High Court of American Samoa on June 16. “Jordan Ryder” walked away a free man – and a group of high schoolers across the Pacific came away with a fresh curiosity about the American legal system.
“Allyson and Grace, bless their wonderful hearts, were awesome,” Turituri says. “They have somehow given the students the courage to stand alone and, for some, discover a newfound love for the courtroom.”