A day after yet another school shooting, a legally armed school administrator was in his office when he heard what sounded like a gunshot coming from somewhere in the school. The administrator ran into the nearby Spanish classroom and alerted the teacher, who, following lockdown procedure, shut the door, turned out the lights and had the students hide. 

Upon leaving to alert the next classroom, the administrator was approached by an oft-disciplined student returning from the bathroom. When the student reached into his backpack, the administrator shot him three times in the chest. It turned out the student was unarmed, and in fact, there was no school shooter. Was it a horrific accident or reckless homicide? 

Such were the imagined facts laid out in the 57 pages of case materials for this year’s Wisconsin High School Mock Trial Tournament. After winning Regionals for the first time in the history of the school, the Lakeland Union High School Mock Trial team advanced to State, taking home 10th place out of 22 teams. 

Greg Harold, a local attorney who has served as the team’s attorney coach for 22 years, said the mock trial cases always involve timely issues, with years past exploring peaceful protests, police brutality and environmental issues. Connor Black, a senior who served as an attorney, says it’s one of his favorite aspects of the team. 

“We’re discussing pretty hot topics here … and the case is so bipartisan with most of the facts presented (that) it doesn’t matter what side you’re leaning, you can still just sit and examine the facts and observe how this would play out in the real world,” Black said.

The mock trial unfolds similarly to a real trial, with each team designated either prosecution or defense. Each side has an attorney and three witnesses. After opening statements are made, witnesses are called and cross examinations given. A presiding judge rules over the case and two performance judges are seated in the jury box. Together they score each participant over the course of three rounds. A member of the team also serves as a timekeeper, using flashcards to let attorney know where they’re at in the case and how much time they’ll have left for their closing arguments. 

Frank Keeler, the LUHS social studies teacher who has been coaching the team for 15 years, said preparation is a challenge. 

“We start the season just reading through the case and we rip it apart, line by line,” Keeler said.

This year’s case materials included criminal complaints, affidavits, incident reports, school safety procedures, exhibits, a school blueprint and jury instructions. At the beginning of the season, which starts in November and lasts until mid-March, the team will spend two hours a day combing through the materials. 

“We go through every affidavit individually and we kind of just talk about it, trying to get a feel for the character and … what their role is in the bigger picture,” said Erika Intrepidi, a senior who served as a witness on the team. 

After the team has gathered some ideas on the case and picked their roles, the attorney coaches are brought in to provide legal expertise. Harold said thorough analysis of the case is crucial, which means knowing the affidavits, which can be four pages long, inside and out. 

“Connor has to know Erika’s entire affidavit because he’s going to cross examine (her) character, and one of the things that he has to be aware of, is that witnesses can’t embellish the facts or go beyond his or her affidavit,” Harold explained.

It’s also just as important, Harold said, to know what to leave out in a line of questioning. 

“The creativity of the attorney and the witnesses determine what they want to ask questions about,” Harold said. “You don’t cover everything that’s in there. They have to decide whatever’s extraneous, whatever’s irrelevant … whatever they don’t think is helpful to their case.”

Black said the witnesses and attorney work closely together to decide on lines of questioning which will show their witness in a favorable light. 

“The challenge for (the witness) is that she’s on the fly on cross examination,” Black said. “She doesn’t know what the other team is going to be asking her, and so that’s where the element of a witnesses skill comes in … they have to be able to make themselves look as best as they can with these tough situations.”

Keeler said Mock Trial helps build a wide-array of skills. 

“I think it’s one of the most difficult academic exercises in the state of Wisconsin, because you have nothing with you,” he said. “As a witness you have to know everything backwards and forwards and be able to think and deal with questions you’re getting from someone you don’t know, (and) you don’t know what the questions are … It’s a hard, hard, academic exercise, no doubt about it.”

‘They’re going to have heard of Lakeland’

The closing arguments are where real finesse comes into play. Usually each team will have a theme, Black says, and it’s the attorney’s job to give the counter argument to that theme and “flip it on its head.”

Intrepidi says this year’s closing arguments attorney for the team, Anastasia Bruss, was diligent at keeping track of what arguments the other side made throughout the trial and systematically disproving each in her closing remarks. 

“She’s absolutely phenomenal at it,” Black said. 

The team credits a large part of their success to attending scrimmage matches throughout the state, and specifically Keeler for giving up his free time to get them there. The respect is mutual. 

“It takes a special type of student that’s going to be involved in this club, because the … time commitment is pretty severe,” Keeler said. “These guys are putting in far more time than the basketball team is as far as travel. Every single weekend we were gone this weekend but one, ahead of the regional.”

Black said through competing with other teams at the scrimmages (who they wouldn’t be competing with at regionals) the students were able to perfect their lines of questioning. 

“We had lines of questioning way back in December but we are constantly sitting there working on these questions, coming up with the best possible ways to phrase it,” he explained. “We’ll get something from another team and have to slide it in there and try to make it flow … The revision process takes the most time but it’s what makes the best results.”

While Harold said he would support any student who wanted to study law, the team isn’t just for would-be lawyers. 

“There’s no better class in high school,” he said. “They learn so many different skills, they learn how to listen, which is a huge thing that nobody teaches. Communication is a very important part of it, extemporaneous public speaking, emoting ... there’s also an aspect of research.”

Keeler said watching the kids grow is the most rewarding part of the job. 

“We’ve had attorney’s say, ‘Geeze, we’d allow that kid into any law school in the country,’” Keeler said. “When they really start seeing how the law works together, that’s when things really start coming together.” 

Next year, Black and Intrepidi are both headed to UW-Madison, Intrepidi to the School of Pharmacology and Toxicology, and Black to pursue a political science degree with plans of attending law school afterwards. If they decide to try out and are selected for the UW’s Mock Trial team, they’ll be in good company. Sirjan Arora, a former student of LUHS, is the team’s captain.

“(They’ve) got big shoes to fill, yet somebody’s paved the way for (them) too,” Keeler said. “They’re going to have heard of Lakeland when it comes to Mock Trial.”