ALHS mock trial team sees resurgence in participation with over 30 students a part

Published 11:00 am Saturday, February 24, 2024

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By Ayanna Eckblad

Standing in a courtroom and presenting a case in front of a judge sounds daunting, but, for some students, it is an activity that they prepare for and practice for months. These students are part of mock trial, and there is a group of teams right in Albert Lea.

The number of students who participate in mock trial has fluctuated over the years but recently reached a high number for the 2023-24 team.

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“Not every school activity is built for everybody,” said Neil Chalmers, the ALHS mock trial coach. “Here, you’ve got to have some courage, you’ve got to be kind to people and understanding, you have to be a deep thinker, you have to be a problem solver; so typically some of our high flyers, some of our bright kids tend to gravitate towards mock trial.”

What goes into being involved in mock trial? The process begins in October when schools across the state form teams and receive their case for the year from the State Bar Association. The case contains about 50 pages of testimony, five to 15 exhibits and 50 pages of rules with state and federal code as well as mock trial rules. Every team gets the same information, and the case is different each year. This year’s case involves the illegal disposal of hazardous waste into a river by a printing company.

The case is set up in a way that allows either side, the prosecution or the defense, an equal possibility of winning, although winning the trial is not the goal.

According to Chalmers, the mock trial teams never get to a point when the case is decided but rather are scored on the quality of their work to determine who is the winner.

During the months leading up to the trial in January, teams keep busy doing scrimmage competitions and gaining valuable experience.

“We’re trying to give our kids as much experience doing the trial before we get to that first official trial,” Chalmers said. He took the ALHS mock trial team to a scrimmage at the beginning of December along with three other competitions. Following Christmas break, the team went to the Minneapple Tournament in Apple Valley, where around 40 teams were competing. After that, Chalmers said “the real work” begins.

“We’ve been pretty competitive,” Chalmers said. “And we don’t really care about winning and losing … It mostly comes down to, are you willing to work hard?”

Finally in the second week of January, the team gets to use all of the skills they have been preparing for. They go to the courthouse dressed in formal, professional attire and present their case to real judges and real lawyers.

“Then it’s like what you see on TV only we do it much, much better,” explained Chalmers. “TV is a really good demonstrator of what not to do in court. You know, with things like the lawyer will be answering their own questions and things like that or ignoring objections … This is more serious.”

Last year Chalmers received a phone call from a former mock trial student who told him that she got into law school. Another student he coached has argued before the Federal Court of Appeals on multiple occasions.

Although law is the most obvious skill that students gain by being part of mock trial, it helps them gain skills that they can use in any career path.

“This is speech, theater and debate all rolled into one,” Chalmers said. “They’re getting real life skills, even if they never go into law.” Students learn how to solve complex problems in small group settings as well as presenting their solutions to others.

Student Ali Hafstad is currently in her third year of mock trial. After moving to the school district in 10th grade, Hafstad found that mock trial was a great opportunity to engage with her peers.

“There’s so many fun elements to [mock trial].” she said. Hafstad enjoys it so much that she is looking into the possibility of doing mock trial at the college level as well.

Other students, like Noah Anderson, are new to the team.

“My mom has always said that I would make a good lawyer so I joined mock trial,” said Anderson jokingly. Ironically, he became a witness on the team instead of a lawyer. This is OK with him because he said that the lawyers’ workload is a lot more than he would want to do. Anderson enjoys having an extracurricular activity that engages him and allows him to be around people he likes. However, his favorite part is getting up on the stand during competitions and using the skills he has practiced.

“[Mock trial] is so hard,” said Chalmers, admiring the dedication of his students. “You’re going to fail … you’re going to mess up, you’re going to have hard times, but part of this is overcoming those.”