The Scarlet Letter Mock Trial

Judge in a courtroom
This man is in a courtroom!

We have recently read for English class The Scarlet Letter (1850), a famous novel written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The work covers a great deal of morality, and one such related theme in the book is the weight of sin, and closely related to it, the value of repentance. It was fitting, then, as a further study of the work, to act out a mock trial to determine the guiltiest of the three main characters, Hester Prynne, Roger Chillingworth, and Arthur Dimmesdale.

The trial in my class has so far operated for two class days. Today we just finished the final closing statement, and we will hear the judges’ deliberations next block. So, on to the trial itself.

Structure of the Trial

After reading the novel and taking a multiple-choice test on it, we then proceeded with trial setup. The class was divided into four groups, three comprising teams for each of the three defendants, and one for the magistrate team. It was very much not like a normal mock trial, in that in this one, we had a three-team brawl instead of a two-team duel, i.e. instead of two teams, there were three. This was a somewhat complicating issue for many reasons, e.g. each defendant was cross-examined by not one but two different teams.

That the trial was held in an academic setting is also a factor that must be taken into account. Since some grade must be assigned for each participating person, everyone was guaranteed a block of time to speak, even though in a real courtroom setting, some people may not be allowed to speak. Also, since one focus of our English course is rhetoric, or argumentation, and that a certain number of rhetorical arguments were required in the witness testimony, some such testimonies deviated quite largely from what may be admissible in real court, as they leaped into analysis and conclusions rather than stating concrete, objective details.

Time was an unavoidable but nonetheless significant constraint. First, we have three client teams. Each included an opening statement, the client’s testimony, three witness testimonies, two cross-examinations by the other teams, and a closing statement. Each mentioned speech was to last three minutes, so eight speeches times three minutes gives 24 minutes per team. That, however, turned out to be too restrictive a timeframe. Sections were on average lasting over five minutes, and if breaks and transition time be included, we have about 45 minutes per team, or 135 minutes total. Our class blocks last 90 minutes, so we split it up evenly between the two days so far. The next day will feature the fourth team, the magistrates, whose speeches should not last over 20 minutes total.

The trial could have lasted much longer, for some sections were actually cut. In a real court, opposing teams would be able to cross-examine witnesses, but in our trial, only the main client for each team was cross-examined, and not the three witnesses on each team. These nine witnesses times two cross-examinations times five minutes per cross-examination give another 90 minutes, which would have been totally unreasonable. Therefore, what the witnesses stated could not be directly refuted, except for in very special circumstances; such a case is later examined.

Also, each team was given two recesses, or 45-second timeouts, and three objections. The three objection rule actually made a noticeable impact, for, as an attorney, I felt I had to tightly conserve objections. Of course, the trial was in English class, not Debate, but even so, three seemed too restrictive.

What about the objective? The objective of the trial is to find the guiltiest sinner. Since there is a triangle relationship, the ways of attack are not so trivial. For example, Hester’s team could condemn Chillingworth, whose team would condemn Dimmesdale, and then form a triangle of attacks. Another possibility is that two groups could team up on the other. In this case, one client would be attacked twice, another one once, and the final one not at all. Something like this happened in our case, but to a more extreme scenario, in that two teams condemned each other, and the remaining team—Hester’s team, the team I was on—equally condemned the first two.

Because of this relationship, there were different ways to focus our speeches. A group could focus its time on defending its own client, and not worry as much about attacking the clients of the other groups. Or, a group could focus on a particular client to target. We asked our teacher (Ms. Gaetjens) which path to take, and it turns out the decision was up to us. In our case, we focused on defense, while the other two groups attacked each other.

My role in the trial was that of the direct examiner and cross-examiner for Hester’s team. Of course, as one might expect from someone who put “repartee” in his list of interests, cross-examination was the most fun part for me. In the trial I was able to cross examine both Chillingworth and Dimmesdale, the clients of the other two teams.

The Scarlet Letter cover

The Trial

Before I describe what happened in our trial, I would like to add that I did take one year of Debate, back in freshman year. Even though it was three years ago, I still remembered some of the guidelines for cross examination in mock trials. The experience too was quite useful. Perhaps the most important thing was to ask leading questions. Our trial started with Hester’s group, then Chillingworth’s, then Dimmesdale’s. When Hester (Doris) was cross-examined, the attorneys did not particularly ask any leading questions, and Hester could pretty much say whatever she wanted. However, in my first cross examination (perhaps it was a bit too harsh), I asked only yes/no questions until the very end, when I asked Chillingworth (Dong-Bin) to read a quote from the deposition, or The Scarlet Letter.

Of course, it has to do with the person representing the client as well. If the client only responds yes/no, then the questions will easily lead the client into a trap, as in my cross-examination against Chillingworth, for the novel sets him up as an evil man in many places. However, in my cross-examination of Dimmesdale (Andrew Q.), the client came up with many witty responses, and I was saved only by a magistrate’s (Gabe’s) insistence that the client not add additional information unrelated to my questions.

Another factor, and a very important one, is the plot of the novel itself. The novel (perhaps in combination with another Book) is the main source of evidence, and it contains great quotes to pull out in cross examinations that can lead Chillingworth or Dimmesdale into deep traps. However, there do not seem to be as many good quotes to use against Hester.

For an example of what I mean, consider the following attack on Chillingworth; I used these questions as the finisher of my cross-examination of Chillingworth in the actual trial:

When Dimmesdale, Hester, and Pearl are all together on the scaffold in front of the community (the third scaffold scene), and Dimmesdale collapses, you knelt down next to him, correct?

Chillingworth is obliged to answer yes, for this action is directly in the text in chapter 23. If he answers no, then bring out the book and quote the passage that states this.

At that time, did you feel any remorse or forgiveness for him?

This one is virtually a death trap, taking into account the next question. If Chillingworth answers “No,” that would destroy his case immediately. You can follow up with something like: “So you knelt down next to him, and being a physician, you knew he was about to die—and you still did not feel any remorse or forgiveness for him?!” In the more probable case of “Yes,” which the client answered:

Now, could you read the highlighted portion of the deposition, of what you said at this point? (Hands book open to the page in chapter 23 with the highlighted quote: “Though hast escaped me!… Though hast escaped me!”)

The client has to say “Thou hast escaped me!”

So, you earlier said that you felt remorse or forgiveness for Dimmesdale, but even when you knelt down next to him and he was about to die, all you could say was, “Thou hast escaped me!”?

This defeats a large part of Chillingworth’s case. It was actually my very last question, but Chillingworth’s team called a recess at this point, to prepare a response. When the recess ended, and before Chillingworth had a chance to speak, I said, “Thank you, we have no further questions for the client,” but the person wanted to answer the question, so we allowed the question to be answered. The response was something cheesy, along the lines of “What I meant by ‘Thou hast escaped me’ was that ‘Thou hast escaped my medical care.’ ” I merely smiled for about five seconds for the judges to absorb the folly of that statement, and said:


He said “Yes.” I smiled for a bit more, said we had no further questions, and then walked to my seat and sat down.

So, regarding evidence, the text seems to be biased towards Hester and against Chillingworth and Dimmesdale. Of course, I can give an example for the attack on Dimmesdale, but I might post that later, when the judges decide upon the guiltiest sinner.

Speaking of the text, the second most popular piece of evidence was the Bible. Some witnesses, including one that I direct examined (Ben), used multiple quotes from the Bible. Even some objections cited verses from scripture. Even I, as an atheist, cited the Bible. This case was actually somewhat comical.

You see, Dimmesdale’s group brought up God (Ellen) as a witness. The cross-examiner from Chillingworth’s group (Aaron) and I both objected to the person being God citing the Bible as evidence, but she was allowed to continue her testimony. In her speech, she used three graphs as evidence. The graphs showed sin on the y-axis and time on the x-axis. Chillingworth’s graph showed the highest sin overall, and increased over time, Hester’s came next, going up and down, while Dimmesdale’s graph was very low, and decreased over time. Therefore, Chillingworth is the greatest sinner.

However, in my cross-examination of Dimmesdale, I caused Dimmesdale to say that he hated Chillingworth at the second scaffold scene, and then I combined this with God’s earlier testimony that hate without repentance was the greatest sin. Dimmesdale obviously did not repent at that moment in time. Therefore, if Dimmesdale executed the greatest sin, but the sin versus time graphs showed Dimmesdale’s sin as being consistently lower than those of the other two, then the graphs must be inaccurate. I made this objection during the cross-examination, and asked the judges that the sin versus time graphs be stricken from the record. After some debate and deliberation, my objection was sustained, so the evidence became invalid. I raised an objection that caused God’s evidence to be stricken from the record. For me, that was the highlight of today.

I will fill you in on the results of the trial when it is finished.

Update: 11/13/09

Chillingworth was deemed the guiltiest sinner.

3 thoughts on “The Scarlet Letter Mock Trial

  1. Hi, I have to do a mock trial for the Scarlett Letter as well.
    Can you explain what happened during Dimmesdale’s Cross examination.
    I have to make him and Hester look worse against Chillingworth


  2. You have to find something in the book to use against Dimmesdale. In our case, we pointed out a rather caustic statement that Dimmesdale uttered in the second scaffold scene, and combined it with the fact that he told the sexton that he did not see the scarlet ‘A’ in the sky that day (i.e. Dimmesdale lied, an action that is not respectable for a holy man).


  3. That’s true. I think I am going to ask Dimmesdale if he hates Chillingworth. Then I can find a verse in the Bible that says hate is wrong. That will make him look bad


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