Bemidji High School mock trial team headed to state for first time in more than one decade
On June 27, 1977, Elisabeth Congdon was brutally murdered by suffocation in her home, Glensheen, now known as the historical Congdon Estate in Duluth.
A group of students at Bemidji High School know a version of this case all too well. They have successfully argued both sides of the case in various courthouses, earning them a trip to the state high school mock trial competition to be held Tuesday, March 8-9, in Duluth.
This is the first time in more than one decade a mock trial team from BHS has qualified for state.
The Minnesota high school mock trial program gives students in grades 9-12 an introduction to the American legal system. Students use skills in critical thinking, teamwork and even drama as they participate in a fake or "mock" trial in court.
Each year, the Minnesota State Bar Association makes a new set of mock trial materials based on an important issue facing America's youth. The materials include a hypothetical case, lesson plans on the issues in the case and competition rules and guidelines.
This year's case is unique in that it is based on the State of Minnesota versus Roger Sipe Caldwell case, a real trial that occurred in the 1970s. It was chosen by the MSBA to commemorate the 25th anniversary of mock trial in Minnesota.
Because the trial is loosely based on a real case, some of the names and facts have been changed to make the problem more suitable for high school students.
The MSBA prepares affidavits for the witnesses just like a real murder trial. Students and their coaches do not know if they will be speaking on behalf of prosecution or for the defense until the day before or the day of the mock trial competition, so they have to be prepared for everything.
"Witnesses and attorneys have to know all the affidavits," Aas said.
Mock trial is unlike other organizations and clubs. Watching the students practice quick-thinking skills is what Aas enjoys most about mock trial.
"They learn a little drama and little speech," he said. "The great thing is they are thinking on their toes for everything."
Mock trial students earn points based on how they present their case. While all schools are given the same case, each team comes up with a different strategy.
All mock trial teams must follow the rules of the Minnesota High School Mock Trial Competition and the Minnesota High School Mock Trial Rules of Evidence.
BHS teacher Jeff Aas has coached mock trial for three years. Throughout his time as coach he has worked with Katie Nolting, a local attorney, who also helps coach the mock trial students.
Students playing the role of attorney have to know the law, Aas said, which is where the team's attorney coach helps students learn the legal system.
"She teaches the students components like how to object," Aas said. "I've heard judges tell us the students are learning first-year law stuff. We're learning college (material) in high school."
Aas said having a consistent attorney coach and motivated students played a big role in the success of the team. Nolting has been with the BHS mock trial team for four years.
"The biggest thing for me is to see how well the students think on their feet," Aas said. "They have to adjust to different questions. The best part of mock trial program is watching the students develop critical thinking skills."
This is junior Paul Enger's second year on mock trial. He said he joined because he likes engaging in "constructive arguments." He admitted, however, he rarely wins arguments at home because his father is an attorney.
"The most fun has been the team. We are such a close-knit group," Enger said. "It's been a lot of fun getting to know everyone, especially the new (students) who I hadn't met before."
Enger has played the role of an attorney both years he has participated. He admits he was nervous said this made him nervous at first, but her learned to "get over it." Being an attorney can be a challenging role, he said
"One week I will be fighting for the state and the next I will be fighting for the defense," Enger said.
When asked why he thought the mock trial team was so successful this year, Enger said it was because the students are dedicated.
"We've been really dedicated to our case and to helping one another out," Enger said. "It plays out like a game of clue. That's been really fun in keeping us interested in it."
Enger said he hopes to attain a PhD in English after he graduates from high school. He said mock trial has helped him get a start on achieve his goal.
"I'm learning a lot more about language and how to use language correctly and how to use it to be effective when speaking," he said.
BHS senior Ida Brooks is in her fourth year of mock trial. She joined as a freshman after hearing her friend talk about it. Brooks started as a witness and worked her way "up" to become an attorney.
"You never know what is going to happen," Brooks said of mock trial. "It is fun meeting everybody and competing against all the new teams."
Brooks said mock trial is run similar to a real trial with a few exceptions.
"You approach the witnesses the same," she said. "You follow proper court procedures. It's a little different because we have time constraints on our cases."
As an attorney, Brooks said a two- to three-hour trial competition can be mentally exhausting. There is a lot to memorize and learn.
"You're there and you're so in tuned and trying to figure everything out," Brooks said. "If the witness gives you a different answer, you have to change your next question. You have to be ready to respond to any objections or object to any question."
Brooks does not yet know what exactly she wants to do after she graduates from high school, but said mock trial has given her thoughts about going into law school.
When asked how she felt about going to the state tournament, Brooks said, "I've been waiting for this for four years."
"It's going to be such a new experience," Brooks added. "I'm a cheerleader, and I went to state with the basketball team last year and the football team this year. It's going to be different going there for me and not just to cheer someone else on."
According to Aas, the mock trial team may receive a tour of the actual Glensheen Mmansion before or after their state competition.