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Above: The Unity Christian Mock Trial team took home seventh place at a tournament at Niles North High School.

By Landon Ford

SOUTH HOLLAND, Ill. (March 21, 2022) – The verdict in Mercer v. Smartt Forensics Science Camp is still undecided, but the Unity Christian Academy Mock Trial team ended their season of litigation with their heads held high.

On March 11 and 12, the Unity Christian Academy (UCA) team participated in a virtual multi-round state tournament. The team performed as the defense side of the case against Dunlap High School, and as plaintiff against Oak Park-River Forest. Despite their best efforts, the team did not make it to the top eight in the state, but still remained proud of their season — the most successful one yet in Unity Christian Academy’s short history.

Mock Trial

Started in Illinois in 1983, mock trial is an extracurricular that allows students to litigate a fictional trial as if it were real. Using a “case” provided annually by the Illinois State Bar Association, high school students from around the state spend months reading, brainstorming, memorizing, and scrimmaging to bring their strongest case to the state competition, usually held in March.

This year’s case was a civil case involving Cameron Mercer who sued Smartt Forensics Science Camp because his diabetic son (James Mercer) went on a hike and under the camp’s supervision, fell down a slope and is now quadriplegic. The underlying question was: Who is negligent in the matter? Was it the camp counselor that didn’t take the proper precautions and made poor decisions that ended up putting the campers in harm’s way, or were the parent and child negligent because they knew that James had diabetes, failed to disclose this information to the camp, and his diabetes led to his fall?

UCA prepared both sides of the case, including opening arguments, direct examinations of witnesses, cross examinations, and closing statements — all based on the Illinois State Bar Association’s roughly 100-page case materials. The UCA team was split into two teams, A and B, which each performed throughout the season. The A team appeared at the state competition on March 11 and 12.

Unity Christian Academy
From left: Caleb Purnell, Favour Nwokoye, Frances Boerman-Cornell, and Chuka Ejindu listen to opposing counsel during a scrimmage against Chicago Christian High School. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)

The Unity Christian Academy team

The UCA team of litigators were coached by English teacher Charis Bootsma and her husband Josh Bootsma. Captains of the team are UCA seniors Frances Boerman-Cornell and Favour Nwokoye. Other A Team members are Caleb Purnell, Margaret Olaifa, Anton Zekveld, Raphael Landing-Stewart, Chuka Ejindu, Elaine Jackson, and Laylah Elmore. The nine-member team includes at least one student from each class, and together they managed to create a variety of arguments and evidence for this season’s case.

Unity Christian Academy started in 2018, and Mock Trial was the first extracurricular available for its students. Coach Charis Bootsma has been a coach since the program started. She said of this year’s team: “This was the best I’ve ever seen the UCA Mock Trial team compete.”

Though without a top finish at the state competition, the team placed 7th and 3rd in two earlier tournaments this year.

Team captain Frances Boerman-Cornell said, “It is sort of a rare thing to be able to start with something that literally hadn’t existed, and then sees it all the way up into its success.”

The two student captains believe the team has done remarkably well in the teamwork aspect of Mock Trial, and with hard work in general.

Unity Christian Academy
The entire Unity Christian Academy Mock Trial team visited the Markham Courthouse and heard from judges and lawyers about what it takes to make it in the legal profession. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)

“Outstanding” awards for Unity Christian Academy

In addition to team awards, Mock Trial tournaments also award individual students. UCA senior Caleb Purnell was awarded as an “Outstanding Attorney” for his state competition performance.

“To come so far from being there and now, it has been very emotional,” said Purnell, in his last year at Unity Christian.

Purnell’s many roles this season found him on both the defense and plaintiff sides of the case, performing as an attorney and witness. When he was asked about his nomination as “Outstanding Attorney”, he said he believed his performance was “fire.”

“I made sure to bring up the theme of our argument, bring up strong evidence to the stand, dismantle the other team’s theme on the spot, and just simply recite everything,” he continued.

Mock Trialers listen as guest attorney Monica Smit shares her thoughts on this year’s case and on her time as a professional lawyer. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)

UCA sophomore Elaine Jackson achieved an “Outstanding Witness” award at the state competition. In only her second year as a member of the Mock Trial team, Jackson expressed her enthusiasm for being a team member when she first tried out. She won the award for her emotional portrayal of Corey Martinez, best friend of the defendant, James Mercer.

“It’s hard remembering what I need to say to give my team an advantage in this case,” Jackson said, reflecting on her award-winning witness performance.

Appreciation and looking forward

Though the nearly six-month season is now over, the team held an end-of-the-year party last Friday, and played games, shared memories of the season, and distributed intra-team awards. The departing seniors were presented with notes of appreciation and encouragement from the rest of the team.

Unity Christian Academy is located at 16341 South Park Avenue, Building 2 in South Holland.

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