CHEYENNE — Andy Adams had been collecting rodeo memorabilia since she received a signed poster by a famed cowboy as a gift when she was 12 years old.
For decades, she continued to gather some incredible pieces, but her most prized was a belt buckle from 1901 owned by legendary sharpshooter Annie Oakley.
In the summer of 2017, Adams finally decided to listen to her insurance agent, Francis Fleming, and insure her collection, along with the shed that housed the items. During this time, she was also renovating her house. As someone who was making $2,000 at her job with the Black Beauty Coal Mine, life seemed pretty good.
But things quickly fell apart after that. The mine filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and although Adams didn’t lose her job, her pay was reduced significantly. The renovations had slowed, because her home’s foundation was unstable.
Then, her shed burned down, with the fire destroying her collection of memorabilia. She thought she’d even lost the Oakley belt buckle, but it turned up on one of her favorite auction websites, getting sold in Oregon.
She submitted a claim to the Honest Abe Insurance Agency, hoping to get her money back. But the claim was denied, with the agent citing her financial issues, the mysterious disappearance of the buckle and other reasons for not paying out the $370,000 she had insured her shed and collection for.
This was the case at the center of the Wyoming State Mock Trial Competition on Saturday at the Laramie County District Court.
Two teams from Laramie, one from Cheyenne’s East High and one from Rock Springs went head to head in two morning rounds. Each team presented their case as either the plaintiff or defendant, then switched in the next round.
The teams consisted of six students each, with three taking turns portraying the lawyers and three playing the witnesses. During each round, the teams would choose who was the best opposing lawyer and witness for their rivals.
Camila Rivera, a freshman at East, won outstanding opposing lawyer in the first round, where the students took on the “A” team from Laramie.
As the youngest person on the team, Rivera admitted she was shaking from being so nervous when they started the contest Saturday.
You wouldn’t know it by watching her. Brian Bailey, an English teacher at East and co-coach of the team, threw his arm around her shoulder following the first round, saying, “I told you not to be nervous.”
“My dream is actually to be an immigration lawyer, and I already do speech and debate, so when I joined mock trial, I thought it would be fun,” Rivera said. “I was so surprised that I won outstanding attorney in this round. I couldn’t believe it. I do feel really nice, though. The nerves went away when I started giving my talk, but I’m feeling more confident now.”
However, not all the students in mock trial are out to become lawyers. East sophomore Emma Brown is more interested in a math-related career, but said Bailey pushing her to join the team has helped improve her public speaking and English skills over the few months she’s been doing it.
For the second round, East took on Rock Springs. The latter team was the defense, while the East students were the plaintiffs. Rivera felt more assured in the second round, since she would be portraying Adams, rather than a lawyer.
After lunch, it was announced that the Laramie “A” team and East would go on to the championship, which was held Saturday afternoon. After flipping a coin, it was determined that East would again act as the plaintiff, with Laramie taking on the defense.
Students gave an opening and closing presentation, as well as presenting evidence, questioning and cross-examining witnesses. All of the teams have been preparing for the competition since September, when they received their case file and other materials. They also presented evidence to the “jurors,” who are actually the scoring judges. The presiding judges are actual judges in Cheyenne.
During the cases, coaches could be heard discussing various moments in the case, from objections to presentations and testimonies.
Bailey and East co-coach Lisa Novotny said the preparation process has been intense, since they’re constantly trying to improve their cases.
“There’s never a time when you’ve achieved perfection,” Novotny said, with Bailey adding that they always tell the students on the team that there’s no such thing as a perfect court case.
Circuit Court Judge Tom Lee presided over both of the morning cases that East participated in and was highly complimentary of the students involved.
“I have to remind myself that you’re not real attorneys,” he said to the students at one point. “Honestly, you’ve all done better than some real lawyers who have come through this courtroom.”
The jurors and judges gave praise and some tips to the students after the rounds, noting that the main thing they all needed to remember was to take their time and remember to breathe when presenting at the podium.
In the end, the Laramie “A” team won the competition, with East taking second place and the other Laramie team being awarded third.
Although East didn’t win the top prize, Bailey and Novotny were proud of their students, knowing how hard the six of them had worked to present their case.
“I wish I’d done mock trial in high school, because it would have helped me out so much in law school,” Bailey said. “I think doing mock trial is so important for these kids, because it really teaches them critical thinking skills. They’re learning how to think on their feet, because they have to be ready for cross-examination.”
Brown added that although she’s learned about sportsmanship from participating in various sports like diving and track, mock trial has helped her learn how to be part of a team.
“For the sports I’ve done, they’re more about being an individual,” she said. “Here, we have to work together and create a case and arguments with a team. Sometimes you get frustrated at the other team when they’re arguing against you, but you have to remember that just because they’re doing it differently doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better.”