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LPHS Mock Trial Team to compete in Helena

By Gabrielle Gasser ASSOCIATE EDITOR

BIG SKY ­– Becoming lawyers for a day, a team of Lone Peak High School students will test their skills tomorrow at the Montana High School Mock Trial Competition. In the local team’s third year exploring the legal process through realistic mock trials, LPHS hopes to improve on its second-place finish from last year. 

Hosted in Helena at the Capitol building on March 4 and 5, the competition gives students from across the state a hands-on experience with the legal process through executing a full trial in which students act as attorneys, witnesses, timekeepers and courtroom artists.

After growing in popularity since the program’s inception in 2020, Lone Peak is taking two full teams to Helena this year. Teams generally include three witnesses and three lawyers, and the students must all be prepared to present either side of the case since they won’t know which side they are assigned to until they arrive at the competition.

The Lone Peak High School Mock Trial Team competes in Helena in 2020. PHOTO COURTESY OF ALANAH GRIFFITH

The Idaho Law Foundation sends out the legal problem, which could be a criminal or civil case, in December each year and teams must then learn the facts of the case and be prepared to present them in a clear, compelling argument. This year, students will argue a defamation case in which a high school student alleges that an article published by another high school newspaper lost them a full-tuition college scholarship.

The LPHS team recently held a six-hour-long practice where they ran the case twice, giving each student a chance to practice both sides.

The 2021 competition was held virtually due to the pandemic, so both students and coaches are excited to return to in-person competition this year.

“I am looking forward to competing in person,” said senior John Chadwell. “Last year was online so it should be fun to compete in person this year.”

Senior Samantha Suazo, who has been on the team for three years, added that the ability to compete in person allows attorneys to directly connect with the judge and jury, something she was able to experience in Helena in 2020.

The team’s coaches, Alanah Griffith and Matt Dodd, are local attorneys who’ve been with the team since the beginning. Griffith helped to establish the Montana High School Mock Trial Program after the coaches of teams in Helena proposed the program to the trustees of the State Bar of Montana. Prior to 2020, the Helena teams competed in the Idaho competition.

“This is a great opportunity to teach the rule of law to high school students, and to teach them what goes on in a trial,” Griffith said.

Griffith and Dodd approached the school shortly after the state adopted the program with the idea for a mock trial team that they would lead with social studies teacher Tony Coppola as their faculty advisor.

“The goal is really more so that the kids have a great experience,” Griffith said of the upcoming competition. “… And of course, our senior team, the returning seniors, very, very much want to take first place.”

The first year the team consisted of six students, the bare minimum. The second year the team doubled in size and this year 19 students are involved.

“It’s getting bigger and bigger in terms of numbers every year and [we are] getting better and better results every year,” Dodd said. “We’ve been very lucky to have some hard-working, motivated kids that come out and hustle.”

To prepare for the competition, the team has been refining skills like public speaking, teamwork and the ability to present information clearly and connect with the judges and jury.

Suazo said that being on the mock trial team has improved her public speaking and critical thinking skills.

“Mock trial has fostered my confidence to speak publicly—especially when my coaches told me to embrace my accent,” said Suazo, who is originally from Honduras. “This has stuck with me throughout the years and not just that but it also helped me embrace my identity with pride.”

“We’ve got kids that honest to goodness can cross examine better than some lawyers I have seen out in the real world,” Dodd said.

Griffith said she’s had competition judges approach her afterwards and compliment the students’ cross examination skills, which she says is one of the hardest parts of a trial.

“Matt just happens to be an expert at [cross examination],” Griffith said, “and [he is] fantastic at teaching the kids.”

Senior Carly Wilson called Dodd and Griffith strong coaches, acknowledging Dodd’s skill at cross examinations as well as Griffith’s ability to help the students develop their witness characters and work on direct examinations.

“That combo of two different lawyers with different backgrounds is really useful to our team,” she said. “…The way that our teams are able to develop so quickly shows how good of coaches they are.”

Wilson said her favorite part of the competition is playing a witness and getting to make that role her own and mess with the opposing team while they cross examine her.

“I am excited to see our case come together,” Wilson said. “This is the first year we have a pretty big team so it will be fun to watch everyone in the real competition. … I think the experience will feel more authentic when everything is done face to face in Helena.” 

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