Photo: Mock trial team members (from left) Patrick Brennan '27, Celia Walker '26 and John Schultz '24 begin presenting their case as the defense team in an exhibition held before 23rd District Judge Scott Geddes.
A real courtroom. A real judge. A real-world challenge. That was the setting recently when students on Roanoke College’s new mock trial team stepped up to argue their cases in their first live event.
Mock trial, as its name suggests, immerses students in a simulated court case that challenges them to analyze the evidence, build a compelling argument and present it to a judge and jury. Roanoke has organized standalone mock trial events among students before, but it’s now launching a full-fledged competition team that can travel to face-off with other teams from around the country.
The program expansion was made possible by a gift from the Turk family. Thirteen students joined the inaugural team. They’ve had the opportunity to be mentored by an experienced trial attorney, team coach Ryan Hupp ’10, and make connections with students on other campuses.
They also had a unique chance to flex their skills in front of a sitting jurist, 23rd District Judge Scott Geddes, in a recent exhibition organized in anticipation of the team starting competitions next semester.
“The mock trial team gives our students new opportunities to hone their critical thinking skills and learn firsthand the fundamentals of trial advocacy,” said Professor Todd Peppers, coordinator of the Turk Pre-Law Program and Henry H. & Trudye H. Fowler Professor in Public Affairs.
“We are grateful to Ryan Hupp, a talented prosecutor and a Roanoke graduate, for his work with the team,” Peppers said. “We are also immensely thankful for the generosity of the Turk family. Their support has enabled Roanoke and our pre-law program to help a new generation of students prepare for the rigors of law school.”
The mock trial exhibition, held at the Roanoke County Circuit Court, was the culmination of weeks of work by the students who split up into two camps — prosecution and defense — and prepared their cases separately. The event required them to keep cool under pressure. Evidence and arguments had to be kept organized, rules of procedure followed and at any moment a witness or opposing attorney might throw you a curveball that necessitated a quick-thinking response.
Photos, clockwise from left: Eli Little '26 (left) and Aidan Lacombe '26 present prosecution evidence in a Nov. 19 mock trial exhibition held in Roanoke County Circuit Court. Logan Kinkema '24 argues a point for the prosecution team. Patrick Brennan '27, who was part of the defense team, questions a witness.
Patrick Brennan '27 confessed to feeling both well-prepared and a little jittery as he gathered with his fellow teammates on the defense side of the aisle just before the start of the exhibition.
“We’ve been working hard, and we know our stuff,” he said. “But this is going to be our first time in front of an actual judge. I’m very excited for that, but also a bit nervous.”
Those nerves seemed to vanish, though, as Brennan stepped into his role as defense lawyer and zealous advocate for his client. “Objection, your honor, Rule 403,” he interjected at one point, swiftly rising from his chair to block a piece of prosecution testimony that he decried as “specious and erroneous.”
That part of the experience — learning to think on your feet, decipher complex legalese and get your point across with confidence — are all part of what makes mock trial an invaluable learning opportunity, said Hupp, who’s an assistant prosecutor for Roanoke City, where he’s handled cases that run the gamut of the legal code.
Hupp has shared the benefit of his years of experience with Roanoke’s mock trial students as well as brought in other attorneys from different fields to talk with them. But, he added, he’s also tried to step back as competition dates near and empower them to take the lead in their cases.
“It’s your show,” he reminded them just before the start of the local exhibition. “When we get started, you’re going to be in the world of a legal trial.”
Students on the team come from a diverse cross-section of majors — criminal justice, sociology, history, physics. Some are headed for law school after graduation. Others were drawn to mock trial by the thrill of competition and the opportunity to stretch themselves by learning a new field.
Still others saw the program as an opportunity to get hands-on experience that could help them focus their career goals.
“It’s been really great to learn more about how the process works, and hear from Ryan and other people who are doing law as their career,” said Steven Luth '27, a criminal justice major. “It’s helping give me a sense of the different directions I could go in after graduation.”
The exhibition event took place on Sunday, Nov. 19, in a Roanoke County courtroom staffed by court bailiffs and presided over by Judge Geddes. In addition to the mock trial team members, students were invited to observe the event as volunteer jurors.