Teens argue sides in a mock trial competition in Everett

EVERETT — Isaac Dickson shot to his feet with an objection.

The witness, he argued, is an expert in forensic linguistics, not math. He shouldn’t be required to add up how much he was paid to testify against a suspected domestic terrorist accused of trying to blow up a state ferry.

Laughter rippled through the courtroom and Snohomish County Superior Court Judge David Kurtz couldn’t stifle a smile. He overruled the objection, but the quick-thinking Dickson appeared to have impressed the judge.

Dickson, 15, was part of a team from the Stillaguamish Valley School that recently participated in the county’s Mock Trial Competition. In all, seven teams battled it out in courtrooms at Denney Juvenile Justice Center in Everett over three days to determine which teams would move on to the state competition next month in Olympia. The trial competition is sponsored by the YMCA Youth and Government Program.

Last fall, teams from around the state were given a fictional criminal case to study, including witness statements, photographs and pre-trial motions to argue. The case leveled charges against a man tied to a militia movement. He was accused of plotting to detonate a bomb on a Washington state ferry loaded with U.S. Navy sailors.

Students took on the roles of prosecutors, defense attorneys and witnesses. They argued the cases and testified in front of seated judges. Their performances were graded and critiqued by local attorneys.

“It’s so nice to see kids engaged in something positive,” Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Linda Krese said. “They learn a lot about the courts and they take the competition very seriously.”

Three teams competed from Archbishop Murphy High School in Everett. One team came from Jackson High School in Mill Creek. Two teams from King’s High School in Shoreline competed. The Stillaguamish Valley School, part of the Arlington School District, serves home-schooled students.

This was the third year the Stillaguamish Valley School sent a team.

“I’m really into drama and this is a nerdy way to be into drama,” 16-year-old Liz Finch said before Saturday’s competition.

Her involvement in the class also has inspired her to pursue a law degree, she said.

“One day I’d love to be able to argue a case to a jury,” Finch said.

The teenager said it can be a bit unnerving to perform in front of a judge and attorneys, but it also motivated her to be prepared and strive to stay in character.

Students really learn to think on their feet, said Michelle Marange, the coach for the Stillaguamish Valley School’s team.

Saturday afternoon, Finch and Dickson faced off against three defense attorneys from Archbishop Murphy High School’s junior varsity team.

Hannah Volsky, Tara Darrow and Ria Hoffman argued that their client was framed by an overly ambitious FBI agent and a government informant who’d been promised money and a job for his testimony.

The lawyers hurled objections back and forth, rattling off evidence rules to support their positions. Dickson at one point found himself up against the clock and pushed his witness to answer quickly in hopes of getting in the evidence he wanted to support the prosecution’s case.

“They have improved so much,” Marange said during a quick recess.

In the end, Archbishop Murphy’s junior varsity team won the trial.*

Finch was named best attorney of the competition, sharing the title with Marcella Carey from Archbishop Murphy and Madison Shinn from King’s. Jackie Becker from Jackson was named the best witness.

King’s won first in the competition, followed by Archbishop Murphy’s varsity team. Jackson’s team came in third. All three teams will have the chance to show off their trial skills at the state competition next month.

Walt Potebnya is a private attorney who practices in Snohomish County and volunteered as an adviser for the Stillaguamish Valley School team. He was in the front row Saturday as the teens battled it out.

“It’s really satisfying to see the kids blossom,” he said. “I don’t know if I could have done this at their age.”

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

Correction, Feb. 27, 2013: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the winning team.

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