Acting out | Students in mock trial competition learn that skills need to go beyond lawyering

Katie Hurlbut of Mercer Island performs in the mock trial state competition as a witness who owns a British cafe. Her performance was complete with an accent. To her right, Judge Richard Okrent, from Snohomish County, presides. - Celeste Gracey/Staff Photo
Katie Hurlbut of Mercer Island performs in the mock trial state competition as a witness who owns a British cafe. Her performance was complete with an accent. To her right, Judge Richard Okrent, from Snohomish County, presides.
— image credit: Celeste Gracey/Staff Photo

An expert witness in police procedure, Fran Muldane knew his statement would defend an officer on trial for murder.

He approached the witness stand with the same calculated certainty that he displayed when answering questions.

“He had to act, shoot or be shot,” he said, dialing back his thick Brooklyn accent as to not intimidate the jury.

Judge Richard Okrent looked down and smiled; he was a convincing witness and the performance was key to winning the trial.

A mock trial, that is.

Michael Abraham, a sophomore at Eastside Catholic School, has been rehearsing his role as Muldane since October.

The effort paid off March 26, when he tied for first place at the YMCA state competition in Olympia as best witness.

Acting has become as much an integral part to winning the high school competitions as knowing the law, but the big winner is democracy.

The team took second place in King County and 16th at state last weekend.

At the Thurston County courthouse, teens clad in suits filled courtrooms, which were presided over by real judges. Experienced lawyers took seats in the jury box to rank performances.

“They’re doing quite admirably,” said Thomas Cox, who has worked on high-profile police shooting cases. “It’s a condensed version (of actual court cases). It’s like ‘Law and Order.’”

During the trial, senior Michael Orehek struggled with a defiant witness, a detective, who wouldn’t answer a question about her experience on the force.

In frustration, he repeated himself multiple times. He was lucky not to hear an objection from the prosecution for badgering the witness.

After the trial, Judge Okrent from Snohomish pulled him aside and gave him a few tips. The student reminded Okrent of his youth, he said.

Meanwhile, teacher Robert Matthews looked on from a distance.

“What an incredible life experience,” he said.

If none of the kids decided to become lawyers, the process of studying the law makes them better citizens, he said.

Maddie King-Foster was first attracted to the program because of the acting. During the competitions she played two witnesses, including a nutty garbage collector who tells the prosecution she thought the victim was holding a ray gun when he was shot.

“It’s so much fun up there, especially when you have a character you can dive into,” she said.

While witnesses own the stand with the first interview, cross-examinations require them to improvise without breaking character or straying from a signed witness statement.

The more witnesses embellish, the higher the risk.

“As a witness, you never know what question is coming,” said Lauren Auerbach, an ECS junior.

The trial tells the story of a police officer who confuses a cell phone for a gun and shoots a person of interest in an arson case.

King County Superior Court Judge William Downing writes the cases each year based on relevant issues in the courts. At the time, a Seattle officer had shot and killed Maurice Clemmons, who was on the run after killing four police.

Downing’s mock court case turned eerie after more police shooting inquests began popping up in King and Snohomish counties, including the publicized death of a Native American woodcarver.

“It was weird,” Orehek said.

Downing’s case had a few colorful twists, including a dark alley, a dead police dog and evidence that the victim was shot in the back.

While juries typically rule in murder cases, the volunteer judges made rulings at the mock trials.

“One thing I’m certain of, the victim was not shot by gamma rays from a cell phone,” Okrent said with a smile.

He ruled enthusiastically that the officer was guilty of manslaughter and second-degree murder.

The two other lawyers disagreed, the prosecution team couldn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt. It was the same reason King County prosecutors decided not to charge the police officer.

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