A hushed gallery watches as the defense attorney, dapper in a navy pants suit and rectangular glasses, gestures dramatically with her hands.
"Events will show that the two exchanged heated words," says Lisa Cui, pacing the courtroom.
"Two shots were heard," she whispers before raising her voice. "Lane Hamilton fell to the ground."
Behind Cui, the California State Seal hangs on a wall. A stern-looking bailiff with a loaded gun stands at the door.
The only giveaway inside the Rancho Cucamonga Courthouse that the defamation trial taking place is not real is a student sitting silently in the jury box, holding up a cue card indicating that Cui has two minutes to wrap up her opening statement.
The USC College freshman calmly quickens her pace.
She explains that a witness had rushed to the scene and observed a man, Drew Walton, crouched over Hamilton’s body.
“Drew Walton jumped up,” Cui says, before finally shouting: “Drew Walton’s hands were covered in blood! Lane Hamilton’s blood!”
Cui’s dramatic performance as a member of the USC Mock Trial Team helped the group win a top place in the American Mock Trial Association’s California regional tournament Feb. 20-21. Of 26 teams, USC placed fourth and sixth. The win advanced the team to the first round of the national championship tournament. USC tied for sixth place.
The USC Mock Trial Team ranks among the nation’s best. In 2001, the year the program was launched, the team placed first in the American Mock Trial Association intercollegiate tournament’s western region division. For the next five years, members placed in the top five of the nation’s 564 teams. Last year, many seniors and the group’s most seasoned members graduated, yet the team remained in the top 20.
Olu Orange, an adjunct assistant professor of political science in the College, founded and runs the program, which began as a one-credit course, but beginning in the fall will be increased to four credits.
Orange was a founding member and coach of an award-winning mock trial team at Howard University, where he earned his law degree. After arriving in Los Angeles, he opened Orange Law Offices, a criminal defense and civil rights firm.
Students who participate in the Mock Trial team gain a tremendous head start in law school, Orange said.
Graduating team members attend major law schools such as Harvard, NYU, Georgetown, Cornell, and Howard, he said. Since 2006, every law school-bound team member has been offered a scholarship. Members number about 30 a year.
But there is more to the program than the trial competitions. Students also work with public interest law firms on actual cases.
For example, students may work for the General Relief Advocacy Project (GRAP), part of the Public Counsel Law Center, the world’s largest pro bono law firm fighting for the rights of the underprivileged. Participation in GRAP is usually reserved for law students, but the agency was impressed with USC undergrads, who helped its attorneys on cases involving terminations of public assistance.
“I believe students come to college as basically open books,” Orange said. “And they’re willing to fill those pages with whatever experiences they have. So my objective is to simply offer them an opportunity to experience doing good things for people. I have yet to have a student who did not enjoy doing this.”
Orange observes a distinct transformation in students after they have argued on behalf of a homeless person.
“They can take in the theory, do the research and get good grades, and at the same time provide the underserved access to justice,” Orange said. “They realize, ‘I can do something today to help a family put a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs. I can do that right now.’
“They come out of the experience with a true feeling for helping people, with an appreciation of advocacy.”
For some, the experience is so powerful it changes their life paths. Hooman Kazemi, a 2004 College graduate with a bachelor’s in international relations, joined the mock trial team as a junior to hone his public speaking skills.
But after one year, he decided to become an advocacy lawyer, something he previously had not considered.
“I can say with 100 percent absolute certainty that the only reason I went to law school and the only reason I decided to argue on behalf of the underprivileged is Olu Orange and the USC Mock Trial Team,” Kazemi said. “Through them I found my calling.”
Now an L.A. County deputy public defender, Kazemi is a senior assistant coach for the USC Mock Trial Team.
“I can only hope that the students get as much out of it as I did,” Kazemi said.
Many students agree that their participation has been life-altering.
Robson Hauser, a sophomore in the USC Marshall School of Business, had sought to become a sports attorney, but decided to study criminal law after his experiences on the team.
“I realized that criminal law does a lot more good in the world than working to sign a professional baseball player’s contract,” Hauser said.
MiRi Song, a College senior with a triple major in philosophy, sociology and East Asian studies, plans to practice international human rights law.
She is among several team members who aided attorneys in a highly publicized lawsuit alleging L.A. Police Department misconduct during a peaceful May Day immigration demonstration at MacArthur Park in 2007.
Orange was a plaintiff attorney on the case that ended with a nearly $13 million settlement to demonstrators and bystanders.
Song and other students interviewed the victims to determine what kind of case could be made.
“It was an honor to be able to help them; they were so distraught,” Song said, adding that one of her clients was a 6-year-old who suffered a broken arm. “That kind of first hand experience is invaluable.”
She attributes her scholarship plus stipend from University of California, Berkeley’s School of Law to her involvement with the team.
“When you can convey to a school that you have this kind of deep understanding of clients’ rights, it makes you stand out,” she said.
Back at the Rancho Cucamonga Courthouse, Cui looks like a natural arguing in court. It is hard to believe she had been so nervous.
“The mock trial team has taught me to remain calm no matter what,” Cui said. “And to let my nerves go and do what I have to do.”
After competing and working with homelessness advocates, she is certain she will go to law school and study international law.
“My goal is to help people globally,” she said. “There are other ways I can do that, but despite my nerves, nothing is as comfortable to me than standing up in that courtroom.”