Making their case

COTTONWOOD – For the past four years, the Lakeview mock trial team has advanced to state, gaining valuable experience and placing higher and higher each season. Recently, the Lakeview varsity team argued its way to a runner-up finish at the Minnesota State Bar Association’s 2013 High School State Mock Trial tournament in Minneapolis.

“It was absolutely crazy, but it was so good,” Lakeview head coach Amanda Sieling said. “It was so gratifying because the kids worked so hard.”

Lakeview’s second-place mock trial team was made up of seniors Alicia Popowski, Chelsey Johnson and Brandon Moody, juniors Anissa Peppersack, Alexis Laleman, Erin Devereaux and Shelby St. Pierre and sophomores Molly Lovsness and Courtney Popowski.

“The experience was pretty unbelievable,” Johnson said. “Coming from such a small school, we never expected to do so well, to get that far. When people come up and say ‘Congratulations,’ it still doesn’t register that we took second at state.”

Of the 12 teams at the 2013 State Tournament, Lakeview was the smallest school, with 200 students in grades 9-12, while Mock Trial champion Nova Classical Academy, a St. Paul charter school, has 250 total students. Eight of the teams have 1,300 or more students at their school, with Wayzata recording the highest number of all (3,000).

“When you think about the fact that every other team there is at least twice as big as us, it’s pretty amazing,” Sieling said. “And Nova’s whole curriculum is geared towards mock trial. They don’t even have a football team. They focus on thinking and competing.”

“When they first called our name, we asked if they had checked their math,” Alicia Popowski said. “We were flabbergasted. When they said they were sure, we started bawling.”

Nova eventually claimed the 2013 title, but the Lakeview students also felt victorious.

“I couldn’t have written a better ending to the mock trial story,” Johnson said. “During the regular season, we only had five trials, and at state, we had four rounds in two days. It was insane. It was the most strenuous mental event I’ve ever took part in.”

Despite the exhaustion, the team put together a solid championship trial to end the season. In addition to the second-place team finish, two students took home individual awards, with Johnson earning All-State Attorney honors and St. Pierre receiving an All-State Witness award.

“I’ve been out for mock trial for five years, and it’s been very interesting and very satisfying,” Popowski said. “We tried so hard and put so much effort into it. We added extra practices. It’s amazing that our hard work paid off, especially this year.”

Having coached at Lakeview since the 2001-02 season, Sieling, an assistant county attorney for Yellow Medicine County, has enjoyed watching the individual and team progress each and every year.

“I love watching them thrive,” she said. “They bloom throughout a season, and then to watch them over the course of a couple of years is amazing. It’s incredibly rewarding to see them become critically-thinking people.”

Ben and Katie Pieh, Erin Hadfield and Andy Hellie assist Sieling during the mock trial season.

“Andy was on the first mock trial team ever,” Sieling said. “He moved back to the area and has helped coach the last couple of years. He’s fabulous. All the coaches are so helpful. Mock trial requires a lot of guidance. The only reason we’re able to have two mock trial teams is because they help me.”

Johnson also praised the coaching staff, noting that mock trial is her favorite high school activity.

“The coaches we have to work with are so amazing,” she said. “I don’t know if I’d be who I am today if I wasn’t in mock trial. It’s a pretty powerful program.”

Johnson jokingly admitted however, that her parents didn’t necessarily appreciate the arguing skills that she’s learned throughout the years. But in the courtroom, those skills come in handy. Johnson was the lead attorney for the defense this season, making her responsible for handling the direct and cross-examination of expert witnesses and also giving the closing argument.

“I think overcoming the obvious fact that the defendant was intoxicated was the most difficult part,” Johnson said. “I also had to help my other attorneys with objections and handling exhibits.”

Marking the 27th year that the Minnesota Bar Association has sponsored the Mock Trial Program, this year’s case was the State of Independence vs. Dustin Beaver, a 17-year-old who faced criminal prosecution for death by vehicular homicide. After the senior prom, Beaver is alleged to have been drinking and boating with friends.

Sophomore Freddy Ferris also came to Point Douglas Beach with a group of his friends, to hang out and go swimming. After two boats, one operated by Alex Alvaro and the other by Beaver, sped by the area where Ferris was swimming, Ferris disappeared. After his body was found several days later, an autopsy revealed that Ferris died from a skull fracture, which was consistent with being struck by a boat. He also had three deep cuts down his back and his thigh, which were consistent with a spinning propeller blade.

The following morning, Beaver’s blood alcohol level was .057. Testimonies from various friends present that night somewhat contradicted each other and very little evidence was deemed solid.

“What we tried to focus on was that the high school witness that the other team had was biased,” Johnson said. “Beaver had cheated on the witness’ sister at prom. And if he’s biased, then his statements weren’t necessarily true.”

When her team argued for the defense, Popowski portrayed the expert toxicologist.

“The biggest challenge was the math that the toxicologist had to do,” she said. “We were given alcohol absorption rate charts. We actually calculated the math with one of our coaches. It’s been fun to recite it. People were flabbergasted.”

Both Popowski and Johnson said the case was weighted a little more toward the defense this year, but they were able to win the prosecution case one time.

“It was almost impossible for the prosecution to win,” Popowski said. “It was hard because there was a lot of circumstantial evidence, but nothing solid. We did win once, but it was only one of the two counts.”

Johnson portrayed the prosecution’s expert witness on the alcohol intoxication level, while Popowski was the closing attorney for the Lakeview prosecution team.

Teams cannot just have a prosecution team and a defense team, Sieling said. There has to be some cross-over, and each team needs one bailiff, one timekeeper, three attorneys and three witnesses.

“Witnesses are judged on how believable they are and how they hand direct and cross-examination. It’s a lot of thinking on their part, to worm their way out of things. Just like in real life, they have to be prepared and be able to think on your feet,” she said.

Attorneys are judged on how well their direct-examination is on witnesses and cross-examination is on the other side’s witnesses.

Sieling said she appreciates that the students get a basic understanding of the judicial system, but she especially likes that the students think and learn how to process information in a different way.

“They’re actually thinking about it and applying it,” she said. “If they can argue well, they can take it and apply it to every aspect of their life. It’s so fun to watch them do that, to click those pieces into place.”

While mock trial isn’t conducive to community involvement since observation is limited, Sieling believes that the students acquire lifelong skills.

“It’s not about whether they make the right remark,” she said. “It’s about the kind of people they end up being. I want them to be critical thinkers who are open to ideas and to embracing ideas.”

Since they compete on both sides of the case, the students have to think about an argument from two different perspectives, which is good, Sieling said.

“We tend to live in our own little world, where our truth is the truth,” she said. “But to be a successful attorney or a successful person, you have to think about the other perspective, too.”

Popowski said she really values her mock trial experiences.

“It definitely comes into play with your communication skills and being able to think on your feet and out of the box,” she said.