Campus News

Dillard Mock Trial featured in 12-part documentary podcast

Dillard Mock Trial members DeAndre K. Bell II (pictured, waving) and Lejeanne Shelton are featured on the documentary podcast series, “Class Action”. Photo: Sabree Hill/Dillard University.

By Eddie Francis, 
June 2, 2022

The idea behind the “Class Action” podcast was to feature law school students in the highly competitive world of mock trial, but the Jewel of Gentilly brought something different to the table. On the heels of their historic 2021-2022 season run, two members of the Dillard University Mock Trial Team are being featured in the twelve-part documentary series. Starting June 7, listeners will hear the inspiring story of the team’s season through the voices of DeAndré K. Bell II ‘23 and Lejeanne Shelton ‘22.

Oddly, the mock trial team can thank Hurricane Ida for the addition to the series. The “Class Action” producers, Sound Argument, LLC, had been focusing on law school students; but one of them had a hunch. After hearing about the devastating storm, Kevin Huffman searched for teams in New Orleans, and that’s when something different popped up. Intrigued, he reached out to Coach Adria Kimbrough who shared that the team was dispersed at the time because of Ida. “Within minutes of speaking to Adria and hearing her description of the team, I knew that our best-laid plans of law schools-only was going out of the window,” said Huffman. 

What Huffman and fellow producer Lisa M. Gray found was a riveting collection of stories from a group of mock trial superstars in the making. Huffman spoke to team president Amaya Ronczyk on the phone in September 2021 and followed up by hiring a local producer to record the team’s practices. When the team arrived, they noticed something different about the Dillard team. “The joy and vitality heard in those practices was something that the law school students had seemingly outgrown,” commented Huffman. 

The first tournament Sound Argument attended was the Chucky Mullins Spooktacular Invitational at the University of Mississippi. They were hooked. Huffman recalls the team winning multiple awards and maintains that they should have won the tournament. “But they were so engaging behind the scenes and professional in the courtroom, that we became convinced they could compete against most law schools.”

A little later, Jason R.A. Foster joined the producers and took inventory of Dillard’s cast of characters. “Lejeanne’s humor and wit were on full display when I met her, as well as her knack for getting the team amped up before a round,” he said. “DeAndré reminded me of a college colleague who was SGA president at my university. Caitlin (Douglas) is an organizer and activist as well as a budding artist, so we had a lot in common off the bat. The thing that set the whole team apart was their shared vision to make it to (the American Mock Trial Association National Championship Tournament).” Foster also recalls that Ronczyk was reserved, at first, but grew into her role as the team’s president.

Members of the mock trial team show their certificates after receiving a proclamation from the City of New Orleans for a historic 2021-2022 season.  Also pictured are New Orleans city councilmember Eugene Green (far left),  coaches Judge Kern Reese, L.H.D. ’22 (second from left) and Alicia D. Frison (third from left), and councilmembers Helena Moreno (second from right) and Joseph Giarrusso III (far right).

Bell and Shelton undoubtedly provided lots of material. “DeAndré is just so bright and engaging,” Huffman said. “He has a curious mind and is a dynamo in the courtroom. His religious beliefs and his political ambitions (he’s running for president in 2040) are genuine.” Huffman continued, “Lajeanne is, to me, a lion–just strong and fierce and bursting with energy. She is a natural leader and truly loves mock trial. She is well known within the undergrad mock trial community.”

It is often said that Dillard, like almost all HBCUs, punches above its weight and that has been very much reflected in the performance of the mock trial team. That the DU mock trial team was able to best teams from the Ivy League and bigger institutions “handily,” according to Huffman, made it easy for the Sound Argument crew to forget about Dillard’s size or even that it has neither a pre-law major nor a law school.

Punching above their weight is about more than competition and bragging rights. Dillard’s pre-law program, which houses the mock trial team, was established to diversify the legal profession and Foster saw the team live out that mission in front of his eyes. “Not to be too heavy about it, but it was a bit like a microcosm of the justice system laid bare in front of my eyes. You could say the mock trial competition is a microcosm of the country,” he said. “It’s the same story, though, just a different medium. Oftentimes, Black folks and people of color have to make a lot with a little; and that’s what Dillard did before and during their historic run. They also had help from the community and Dillard alumni.”

The mock trial team, like their pre-law peers, stand on a rock-solid foundation. It’s a legacy born from the days of Straight University, whose law program produced P.B.S. Pinchback, Louis A. Martinet and Rudolph Desdunes; and it extends to the Dillard tradition of justice warriors such as Justice Revius O. Ortique Jr., Lolis Edward Elie, Nils Douglas, Judge Carl Stewart, and Shana Broussard.

These students are, because their alumni were.

The team didn’t put the kind of exclamation point on the season that they hoped they would. Still, making it to the National Championship Tournament was an unprecedented and distinguished accomplishment. And for that, Dillard Mock Trial earned even more respect from the mock trial community than they had before. “On several occasions they were singled out by their peers as a team that best represented the spirit of mock trial,” Huffman noted. “I know that can sound like a consolation prize to some, but it isn’t.  Dillard was, far and away, the most gracious, professional and warm-spirited team in the field.” As much was represented by the team winning the Spirit of AMTA Award. Reneé Simien ‘22 was named an All-American Witness and Shelton was named an All-American Attorney.

Kevin Huffman had a hunch and it was a great one. “Sometimes opportunity knocks and we are so glad that we opened the door.”

“Class Action” is hosted by Katie S. Phang, host of the “The Katie Phang Show” on MSNBC and Peacock. The podcast will be available on iHeart, Apple and other major podcast platforms.