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MERRILLVILLE — It may not be exactly like television's popular "Law and Order" series, but a group of students at Merrillville High School are learning all about trial law and the courtroom as part of the mock trial club established at the school several years ago.

Indiana’s mock trial program is an interactive competition that teaches students about the American judicial system. The competition is sponsored by the Indiana Bar Foundation.

The Merrillville students, who won first place in regional competition at Hammond, also were featured in a video about the mock trial program, along with trinity School at Greenlawn, which won first place at the state level.

Students in the program compete in simulated civil or criminal trials in regional, state and national competitions. Students portray the roles of witness, attorney and defendant, and the teams alternate in each round, trying the same case as plaintiff or defending against prosecution.

Sponsors said the competition teaches students critical thinking, public speaking — especially impromptu — and teamwork skills as an extracurricular activity.

Merrillville came in 14th at the state competition out of 24 teams in early March. One Valparaiso High School team finished in 17th place and the other finished in 24th place.

Other local schools that participated in the regional competition in February were Hammond's Morton High School, Valparaiso High School and Washington Township High School (East Porter Township School Corp.) in Valparaiso.

Indiana Bar Foundation officials said they hope the four-minute video will help recruit others who do not know what the mock trial competition is, especially educators who are not attorneys.

In addition, the Indiana Bar Foundation has a goal of raising $250,000 to underwrite the student teams, entertainment, meals and other expenses to host 900 visitors for the national competition scheduled for Evansville, Indiana, in May 2020.

Merrillville High School English/journalism teacher Alison Skertic, who sponsors the after-school club, said the students have been practicing for months. She said the school had two teams, and she's looking forward to students doing even better in the competition next year. The competition runs from September to March each year.

Skertic said the students also had lots of help from local attorneys Bessie Davis and David Gladish, who came in and advised students on the basics of jury trials.

"The students also have to study and learn all of the applicable laws and the rules of evidence. Those who portray witnesses can't use any notes. They have to memorize everything," she said.

While the the mock trial program is an after-school club, Skertic said it still teaches many state standards and critical thinking.

"It also teaches students confidence and hones their public speaking skills. Sometimes the judges will rule incorrectly just to see how the students react. It means they have to think on their feet. You can't teach that in a classroom," she said.

Five of the 20 or so students involved in the mock trial club — juniors Joenathan Smith, Jaden Lewis, Imani Butts, Nialah Clay and senior Danielle LeGrand — said they enjoyed learning through the program and the competition they participated in.

Smith said the Merrillville team was considered the underdog in the regional competition so, "we were really excited about winning. I want to win state next year," he said.

LeGrand, who is heading to Valparaiso University in the fall, said they get a case that may be based on real events, and they review all the evidence and discuss the pros and cons of the case. "Then we delegate who is going to play the witness, lawyers and others in the mock trial," she said.

Clay said she had a lot to memorize because in one case, she portrayed both a witness and a defendant.

Butts said it's easier memorizing the role of a character than the attorney.

"When you are asking questions of a character, it may be hard to remember, because you have to switch up your questions on the fly," she said.

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Southlake County Reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.