June 8, 2020

Yasmin Fardghassemi is an alumna of the USC Mock Trial Team. She was admitted to the California Bar on December 6, 2014. Just four days later, she appeared in a police brutality trial to cross-examine an expert witness on positional asphyxiation - the same issue at the center of the George Floyd case. In this interview with current USC Mock Trial freshman Sabrina Feng, Fardghassemi recalls the cross-examination and discusses her time on the USC Mock Trial Team.

How did you become involved in the police brutality case?

Professor Olu Orange was one of the lead trial attorneys for the palintiffs on this case. He contacted me one morning to discuss his upcoming trial. Prof. Orange was and still is the Head Coach of the USC Mock Trial Team. He frequently checks up on former students to mentor them. At the time, I had recently returned home from my post-bar trip. Many of my friends and classmates were starting their first week in big law positions. As an aspiring government lawyer, I was not eligible to apply to government positions without my bar results. I was yearning to work on something meaningful and I was given this opportunity when Prof. Orange asked me to join his legal team. He knew I wanted to be a prosecutor and believed I would gain invaluable experience participating in this trial.

So you started working on the case before you were barred, how did you get involved with this cross?

I started working on the case as a law clerk. I was in court for every day of the trial - which lasted 41 days. I drafted motions. I prepared witnesses. I participated in strategy sessions with co-counsel. I was an active participant on the plaintiffs' team. Even though I had been a lawyer for only four days when the expert took the stand, I had an intimate knowledge of the case and the trial proceedings. Early on, Prof. Orange discussed the possibility of having a scheduling conflict. Still, I did not anticipate that he would actually ask me to handle a witness. One day, Prof. Orange had a mediation scheduled in an unrelated matter and asked me to take his place at counsel table the next day to cross-examine the positional asphyxiation expert. I shared my concerns with Prof. Orange who assured me that I would be fine so long as I relied on my mock trial training.  He told me that I was one of the best advocates USC has produced, that he saw me do a great job in court when I interned for the DA's office, and that those things together with my National Championship win as a member of UCLA Law School's mock trial team - made him sure I could successfully cross the expert. He was right! Those skills were all I needed. We won the trial and the jury awarded $8 million dollars. For one of the news stories click here.

How did you prepare for this cross?

I spent the entire night researching prior transcripts and cases involving our expert witness. Luckily I was able to find material related to his prior testimony that would later be used for impeachment purposes in our trial. The next day, I listened intently as the expert testified. I was quick to notice inconsistencies with his prior testimony. I jumped on the opportunity to cross-examine the expert on those inconsistencies.

Did your experience on the USC Mock Trial Team contribute to this preparation?

Without a doubt. My participation as amember of the USC Mock Trial Team gave me the courage and confidence to cross-examine a medical expert just four days after becoming a lawyer. The invaluable skills we hone in the program allow us to hit the ground running in law school and as brand new lawyers.

Did you do anything between undergrad and law school you would be willing to share?

I took a year off to study for the bar and help coach the USC Mock Trial program before attending UCLA Law.

Where are you now? What are you currently working on?

After the trial with Prof. Orange, I joined the Orange County District Attorney's Office for a little over a year. Subsequently, I joined the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office where I am currently employed.

What was the most valuable skill/lesson you learned in Mock Trial?

To feel confident in my own skin in a courtroom filled with complete strangers. The program gave me a voice and the tools to make an impact using that voice. Mock Trial allowed me to master the evidence code, taught me how to move about in a courtroom, handle documentary evidence, and make persuasive arguments to the jury. The ease and comfort I felt as a brand new lawyer was immediately noticeable to my supervisors in my first job.

Why should current undergrad students join USC Mock Trial?

If you intend on going to law school, Mock Trial is the best investment in your future. You will be trained in how to be lawyer before attending law school or stepping foot in a court of law. The program will prepare you for relevant law school courses and ultimately the bar exam. Most importantly you will become a member of the mock trial family. A family of fun, smart, and passionate future lawyers who will always be there to support you and lend a helping hand when you need it the most.

Any fun stories or memories you want to share?

The best part of mock trial was traveling with your mock trial family to out of state competitions.

Any thoughts on what is currently happening in the nation?

As prosecutors we must use our power and position to do the right thing. We must acknowledge that we can do better, be better, and fight for justice wherever it may lead us.

Yasmin Fardghassemi is one of the mentors for the USCMT Alumni Program. For more information, click here