Dave Rice prepared for his first trial as a prosecuting attorney for nearly two weeks.
He wrote and practiced his opening and closing statements, heard rebuttals and, like a contender getting a shot at the champ, the 16-year-old was confident but still had clammy hands.
Last Thursday afternoon, while in an adjacent courtroom Arizona native Roderick Charles Anagal was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the April stabbing of a man at a Kalispell bar, Rice presented his case against a fellow Stillwater Christian student. He prosecuted a classmate plating a fictional character named Tyler Blunt, charged with manslaughter, negligent homicide and illegal burning of wildlands.
“Forcing yourself to be involved really shows how it works,” Rice said. “I think I might be able to do this.”
The student’s case was a localized adaptation of an Arizona high school mock trial, used by Stillwater Christian as part of a 10-day seminar to teach students how the legal system works. Two teams of defense attorneys and prosecutors comprised of 28 11th-graders rehearsed for their day in the courtroom, in hopes of winning their first, and for many their last, case.
Craig Hunnicutt, director of admissions at Stillwater Christian, said that the school has used mock trials for the past four years as part of the school’s curriculum to promote public speaking and also to enhance its students’ understanding of the legal system. In the future, Hunnicutt hopes to compete against other Christian schools within in the state in a one, or two-day invitational.
Montana is one of the few remaining states without a high school mock trial association.
“The kids did a great job, they poured themselves into it,” Hunnicutt said. “Over those two weeks we did a lot of practice and there was drastic difference from start to finish.”
Rice described the illusory crimes of Tyler Blunt, alleged to have ignited fireworks that caused the eventual deaths of two lodge owners and the destruction of wild lands.
While he was convincing in his opening and closing statements, placing the defendant at the scene of the crime with probable cause and motive, a jury of seven – made up of the students’ parents – were not swayed beyond a reasonable doubt.
“We didn’t feel the prosecution presented a strong enough case,” jury foreman Jerry Meerkatz said.
The student’s subsequent case yielded the same result. Reasonable doubt, according to Stillwater Christian parent and fictional witness Karen Hunnicutt, still existed.
Next door, however, District Court Stewart Stadler needed little time to pass down his sentence to Anagal. Surveillance footage absolved any doubt.
Footage revealed Anagal stabbing a man six times, twice in the shoulder, once in the bicep, once in the back, once in the back of the head, and once in the victim’s thumb with a four and a half-inch knife.
“You were trying to kill Mr. Sanchez,” Stadler said before the sentencing, which included restitution in the amount of $19,799 and 10 of the 20-year sentence suspended. He will be eligible for parole sometime in 2011.
Blunt returned to school after his trial. Anagal went to prison.