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Mock trial team takes case to state


February 28, 2020

Contributed photo

The Cloquet High School mock trial team is headed to state next week in St. Paul, where it will argue and act in a mock murder trial. Team members pictured standing, from left, are Jonah Bryant-Nikko, Ethan Gunderson, Brenna Mattson, Emily Vermeersch, Taylor Wenneson, AJ Maijala, Ian Gunelson and Benjamin Bauer. Seated are Cade Anderson, Madelynn Dostal and Joshua South. The team is coached by social studies teacher Corinne Gornick-Heehn.

Is the defendant guilty or innocent of murder, after allegedly selling oxycodone pills to a man who later died of an apparent opiod overdose?

The Cloquet high school mock trial team is taking its arguments - for both sides of the hypothetical murder case - all the way to the state tournament next week.

The team qualified for the state tournament, held at Ramsey County Courthouse in St. Paul March 5-6, after participating in four meets with different schools, then winning the case at regionals by beating out five other teams at the Stearns County Courthouse in St. Cloud. Sixteen teams advance to the state tournament.

Team member Ian Gunelson describes the extracurricular activity as "a combination of acting and quick critical thinking" while Josh South spoke more plainly: "It's as if play and speech team had a baby."

Coach Corinne Gornick-Heehn said the students simulate a real trial, developing their arguments after researching the case - which is given to every team in the state in October.

The students play a variety of roles in a competition, including attorneys for the prosecution and defense, witnesses, defendant and more, often playing different roles depending on whether they're assigned to argue on behalf of the prosecution or the defense that day. They meet in Heehn's classroom over lunch to practice, carry out research, discuss and debate because so many of them are also involved in other activities that meet after school, including sports and theater.

The extracurricular activity is intellectually challenging, exciting, scary and highly competitive.

"I didn't know what to expect," said Cade Anderson, who plays a defense attorney. "Like hockey, it's really competitive and really intense. I like the atmosphere."

Brenna Mattson was an expert witness, playing the medical examiner. She learned a lot.

"I wasn't expecting how memorization I'd have to do, you had to almost be a doctor," she said, adding that she had to be able to testify in a credible manner. Heehn pointed out that witnesses not only have to memorize their facts, they also have to be able to think quickly during cross examination.

The program is sponsored by the Minnesota State Bar, and competitions are judged by attorneys and judges, who also write the case each year. While this year's case is a murder trial, last year the team argued over a civil case, in which a county commissioner filed a lawsuit against a local newspaper for defamation of character.

This year's case is criminal. Defendant Sam Soto is accused of murder in the third degree for selling oxycodone to Brandon Webster, who was found dead of an apparent overdose the day after a July Fourth party at his home.

Heehn said the students read the case and tried out for the team with certain roles in mind, but she had the final call on who does what.

"They stay in that role the whole season," the first-year coach said. "AJ Maijala is our star witness, as Sodo."

The theater star played Soto, except when he didn't. When Maijala made it to the state Nordic ski meet, suddenly Mattson had three days to learn his role.

"She did fantastic," Heehn said.

Mock trial veteran Madelynn Dostal played a critical role in the success of this year's team as one of only three returning mock trial team members. She helped teach the many newcomers what it's all about and acts as the lead attorney for both sides.

"I love to watch it all come together, watching the pieces fall into place" Maijala said. "And I love watching Maddie just destroy people. She's definitely the top shark in the state."

Heehn said the team is smart, hard-working, coachable and dedicated. They have to be to get this far, she said, adding that it can feel like another class as the season accelerates.

But they love it.

Emily Vermeersch said she likes the intensity, Jonah Bryant-Nikko likes the environment, Benjamin Bauer likes all the critical thinking and thinking on his feet. Gunelson loves to formulate arguments, "not just yell" and argue from a different perspective. Others love the way it all clicks into place when things go well.

Dostel may have said it best, in a very unsharklike way.

"My favorite thing is probably the family and support that it has provided me over the last four years," she said. "I get a lot of pride watching my teammates succeed and do well."

But families argue too.

"I love to argue," she adds. "It's the perfect fit for me."


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