During her 24 years with the Cedar County Attorney’s office, Sally Opfer has seen plenty of courtroom drama.

Two years ago, the county’s legal assistant decided to add some reallife action to one of the proceedings — an improvisational mock trial held for Cedar County high school students.

The students visit the courthouse in Hartington as part of the annual “County Government Day.” The students spend the morning touring the various departments and learning more about the county officials and their duties.

The students return for the afternoon session featuring the Cedar County court system. Rather than hear about the judicial system, they see it in action through a mock trial.

Opfer, who holds a theater background, not only helped launch the use of mock trials but has written the scripts for them.

“This is our third year of having this type of mock trial for County Government Day,” she said. “In the years prior, the (real life) judge, county attorney and public defender would speak to students about each office and answer any questions they might have.”

However, the timing of the courtroom presentation at the end of County Government Day wasn’t always the best for holding the students’ attention, Opfer admitted.

“Those sessions would occur right after lunch,” she said. “It kind of felt like the students didn’t have the same enthusiasm as they did when they arrived at the courthouse in the morning.”

Opfer knew the importance of gaining and holding the students’ attention. She also wanted to leave them with a good — along with positive and accurate — impression of the court system.

For many students (and adults), the courts can be unfamiliar, confusing, frightening and intimidating. The average citizen usually encounters the courts only when they are appearing for a criminal or civil case or when serving as a juror.

Any or all of those can be difficult situations under the best of circumstances. Some situations become very emotional, adding to the stress.

Opfer wanted the students to have both an educational and enjoyable experience.

Enter a courtroom drama unlike any seen on television or in the movies.

“In March, 2018, we decided to put on a show,” she said. “We came up with a case idea, prepared a complaint, prepared an outline for each participant to study about their character and put on an improvisational mock trial.”

Opfer portrays the defendant in the production. When it comes to the final verdict, she doesn’t write her way automatically out of the judicial jam in which she finds herself.

Instead, the court decides her innocence or guilt.

If the defendant is found guilty, the judge pronounces the sentence as well as any fines, damages and compensation.

The initial effort in 2018 was so successful that the mock trial became an annual event. However, the performance has remained true to form in following the actual law and courtroom proceedings.

This year’s County Government Day had fortunate timing, as it was held just before schools closed their buildings and suspended classroom instruction because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Opfer, the mock trial allows her and other court officials to share their passion for the law and its importance in all citizens’ lives.

Opfer has seen a wide variety of scenarios in her work as the Cedar County legal assistant. She currently works with two brothers: Cedar County Attorney Nicholas Matney and Special Deputy County Attorney Ed Matney.

Nicholas serves as the county’s chief prosecutor, while Ed — who previously served as county attorney — assists as needed. Opfer works with the administrative tasks in keeping the office running. When not in the office, she can usually be found in the courtroom.

For the mock trials, Opfer has enlisted the assistance of her colleagues serving in the real-life roles of their work.

But rather than just walk students through the steps, Opfer wanted to make the process come to life with a little humor along the way.

Each year, she comes up with an idea for a criminal case. She conducts research to better understand the proposed charges and background information in drawing up the proposed situation. She then writes a script for each person involved in the mock trial.

She not only writes a script for the courtroom scene but also creates the complaint as it would be seen in the court records.

The intent is to provide a behind-the-scene look at the judicial system in both a dignified yet relatable manner,

especially for high school government students.

This year’s “cast” included Judge Douglas Luebe on the bench, making sure proceedings ran smoothly by following courtroom protocol and ensuring the rights of all parties.

The Matneys served as the prosecutors. Nicole Brandt, who works with a Yankton law firm, served as the public defender. Opfer portrayed the defendant.

Others participating in the courtroom scene were Clerk Magistrate Diane Sudbeck, Chief Deputy Sheriff Chad Claussen, Conservation Officer Jeff Jones and Delon Kathol.

The trial, which ran 1-1½ hours, had a ready-made audience as the high school students packed the courtroom, Opfer said.

“We go through the entire criminal court process. The defendant is arraigned, pleads ‘not guilty’ and trial commences,” she said. “Judge Luebe makes his rulings based upon the testimony in court and not based upon the character outlines.”

The judge’s decision remains in doubt each year and is never a sure thing, Opfer said “His acquittal decision the first year was quite a shocker,” she said.

This year’s decision turned out differently. The defendant, while meaning well, committed an act that went terribly wrong, created harm and became a criminal act with financial damages.

In the end, the judge found the defendant guilty, sentenced her to jail and ordered the payment of restitution.

In her role as defendant, Opfer was led away after sentencing.

“Justice was served,” she said. “Chief Deputy (Chad) Claussen put my hands behind my back and took me out of the courtroom.”