Things generally not seen during a criminal trial in Pierce County Superior Court:
• Jurors applauding the prosecutor’s opening statement.
• Jurors giggling during important testimony by a key witness.
• A presiding juror handing her cookie to another juror before standing to deliver a verdict.
Never miss a local story.
All three were on display Wednesday in Judge Ronald Culpepper’s courtroom, but no one was cited for contempt.
The unusual behavior came during a mock trial held before nearly 40 Tacoma high school students who participate in the Upward Bound college outreach program.
Upward Bound’s goal is to help kids from low-income backgrounds or from families that have never had anyone attain a degree “achieve their dream of going to college,” said Delia Orosco, the program’s Tacoma director.
The program includes tutoring and other academic help as well as enrichment events such as Wednesday’s crash course in the criminal justice system, Orosco said.
Deputy prosecutor James Curtis visited the students’ schools – Mount Tahoma, Lincoln and Foss – earlier in the year to talk about his job and helped arrange Wednesday’s visit. The students also got a tour of the County-City Building and the county jail.
“That’s how I got into the position I’m in of being an attorney today,” Curtis told them before the mock trial began. “I had people who supported me and programs like community support services and Upward Bound programs that helped me.”
Prosecutor Mark Lindquist and Mary K. High, a senior attorney with the Department of Assignment Counsel, then told the kids about the roles their offices play in the system. High urged the students to remember they have rights, including to remain silent and to consult a lawyer, and encouraged them to invoke them if ever stopped by law enforcement.
Then the trial began.
The kids were divided into three juries, and they listened to more than an hour of testimony and arguments.
It was Christine Chin for the prosecution and Joseph Evans for the defense, with Culpepper presiding. Chin works as a deputy prosecutor, and Evans works for the Department of Assigned Counsel.
The defendant on trial was “Mr. Stevens,” as portrayed by deputy prosecutor Marcus Miller.
Stevens was charged with second-degree assault for allegedly hitting a teenager over the head with a half-rack of beer and then threatening the boy and his friend with a knife. Stevens claimed self-defense, saying the teens accosted him after he refused to buy them beer and cigarettes at a Tacoma 7-Eleven.
As in real life, it was far from the perfect case for either the defense or the prosecution.
The witnesses, also portrayed by deputy prosecutors, gave conflicting accounts of what they saw or heard. The physical evidence was not a slam-dunk for either side. Some witnesses, including the alleged victims, had credibility problems.
Mikaela Canizalez, a junior at Mount Tahoma High, said during a break in the testimony, “The details are all over the place.” You think one thing, but then something new comes up and you start thinking something else.”
After impassioned arguments by Chin and Evans, the juries got the case. They grabbed snacks before retiring to separate jury rooms to deliberate for about 20 minutes before returning to Culpepper’s courtroom to deliver their verdicts.
There were some disagreements among the jurors about who’d made the best case. Some said the fact that police never recovered a knife from Stevens or the scene eroded Chin’s arguments. Others argued that being hit in the head with a half-rack of beer constituted assault.
“They’re really going at it in there,” said Curtis, who observed some of the deliberations.
The defendant fidgeted a bit at the defense table as he waited.
“I’m a little nervous,” Miller said. “Really.”
He shouldn’t have been.
One jury acquitted him outright and the two others hung, with most of the students leaning toward acquittal.
The kids asked Curtis if the mock trial was based on a real case, and, if so, what actually happened. The case was real, Curtis said, but he did not charge it because the facts were so murky.
“With young leaders such as these students, Pierce County’s future looks good,” Lindquist said. “In this case, the verdict was less important than the experience.”
Ilah Dizon, a student at Mount Tahoma High School, plans to work in the legal system some day. She said Wednesday’s experience did nothing to dissuade her from her plans.
“I thought this was great,” she said.
Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644 firstname.lastname@example.org