Members of the Freeport High School State Champion Mock Trial team with their teacher and legal advisers. Courtesy / Geoff Dyhrberg

FREEPORT — The high school’s Mock Trial team came out victorious at the Dec. 1 final against Cape Elizabeth, making school history as the first Mock Trial team to win a state championship and only the second to make it to the final round.  

“This was a tight-knit group and they worked for each other,” history teacher Geoff Dyhrberg said. “Mock Trial is truly a team effort and these kids had each other’s back and helped each other out.

The team comprises nine Freeport High School students, the majority of whom had never participated on a Mock Trial team before this year.  The class gives students a chance to learn hands-on about the court system through acting out civil or criminal cases against another team, which takes the opposing side. The class meets twice weekly and two Fridays a month, using a mixed in-person and virtual model.  

In past years, schools set up scrimmages between their teams prior to the preliminary trials, but due to COVID-19, teams were unable to meet and get that additional practice, according to Dyhrberg.

“Maybe COVID has contributed an appreciation for school that last year’s students didn’t have. Maybe there was a greater willingness to work hard,” said Dyhrberg, who is also relatively new to Mock Trial, as this was only his second year teaching the class.

The final case involved a fictional group of high school students who were driving to school together when an unseen pedestrian crossed the road in front of their car, causing the driver to swerve and crash. The pedestrian was unharmed, but a passenger was killed. Since the driver had been texting, the “state” – in this case the Freeport team – “charged” him with manslaughter and issued summonses for speeding and text messaging while operating a motor vehicle. Freeport won for the prosecution.

Freeport had trials against Kennebunk, Lewiston and Bonny Eagle before facing Cape Elizabeth in the finals.  Ten Maine schools competed in all, including Casco Bay High School in Portland, Edward Little in Auburn, Saint Dominic Academy in Auburn, Searsport District High School and Stearns High School. The National High School Mock Trial Championship will be held virtually May 13-15 of 2021, according to the Indiana Bar Foundation. 

Halorie Kivler, a senior at Freeport High School, who acted as the direct examiner for the prosecution, gained more than just bragging rights. 

“The public speaking skills and the way in which you’re forced to think on your feet during Mock Trial competitions will follow me wherever I go,” Kivler said. “It’s more interactive than most classes are. You get to put what you’re learning to use right away, whereas in other classes you learn about stuff and maybe it’ll come up at some point in your life.”  

In addition to being taught by Dyhberg, the team had two experienced lawyers coaching them both in the classroom and individually.  

Karen Massey, a prior practicing attorney and teacher at Freeport High School for 17 years, has been coaching Mock Trial students for 21 years. She taught the 2014 Mock Trial team, the only other year the school made it to the state final. 

“They never missed a beat, they never complained, and maybe we were helped by fewer conflicts from some other activities that students might’ve been engaged in at another time,” Massey said. But I think these guys have made the most of this experience, however different it may have been.”  

A retired trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice, Bill Browder has spent the last 10 years offering his expertise to Mock Trial students.

Having been a trial lawyer for my entire career, I can say, without any reservations, that the students who participate in the mock trial program perform at a remarkably high level,” Browder said. “It is very competitive and observing the skills of those who reach the finals of the competition is simply jaw dropping. They often come into this program willing to accept a challenge but often thinking they can’t do many of the things that are expected of them. But, by being forced out of their comfort zones, and through hard work, they learn that they in fact can do it, and not just do it, but do it well.”

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