SACRAMENTO — Wearing their finest suits, the three young advocates from the Los Feliz-Silver Lake area came here last week to participate in the most important trial of their budding legal careers.
Before more than 100 people, including two Los Angeles County Superior Court judges and Gov. George Deukmejian's judicial appointment secretary, they argued the case of a man charged with two criminal counts: receiving stolen property and battery on a police officer.
The three well-groomed youngsters and 13 colleagues had invested hundreds of hours preparing for the trial.
Mock Trial Competition
They spent evenings and weekends memorizing California case law, quizzing witnesses and practicing courtroom technique before attorneys and drama instructors.
But, unlike real attorneys, the teen-agers from Marshall High School had no deep interest in whether the defendant was found guilty or innocent. Instead, they were more interested in winning the seventh annual California State Mock Trial Competition, sponsored by the Constitutional Rights Foundation of Los Angeles.
In the course of the three-day competition, the Marshall team would argue both the prosecution and defense in the hypothetical case. And, while real judges handed out verdicts at the end of each round, those rulings had no bearing on their finish.
Ultimately, it was a complex and poorly understood scoring system that brought the team grief, convincing its members that they were the best, even after another team was announced as the winner.
The round-robin competition between 21 schools from around the state began the night of April 5 in the Sacramento County Court Building.
On the second night of competition, Marshall's defense team met a team from San Mateo County. San Bernardino Superior Court Judge LeRoy A. Simmons served as presiding judge.
Acting as defense attorneys were students Christopher Nichelson, Ana Liza Fulay and Hea Jin Hwang. Ali Williams, who served on the prosecution team, also acted as a pretrial attorney on the defense team.
The case, which all participants had studied since October, involved a fictitious man named Carey Friendly who was hosting a costume party at his parents' home. Friendly had bought two stolen videocassette recorders at a swap meet that day. A plainclothes police officer found one in Friendly's truck outside and one in his living room, which he entered without asking Friendly's permission.
Fell Into Pool
The officer then went into the back yard to talk to Friendly. The two scuffled and fell into the swimming pool. Friendly was arrested on suspicion of receiving stolen property and battery on a police officer.
The Marshall attorneys contended that the police officer violated Friendly's Fourth Amendment right to protection against unreasonable search and seizure by entering the home without Friendly's permission. They also argued that the police officer did not identify himself to Friendly until after the scuffle.
The competition was not exactly like a real trial. For instance, many statements that might have raised objections in a real courtroom went uncontested and were allowed by the judge. Also, the students competed under time restrictions that real lawyers don't face.
During direct examination of Friendly, played by Marshall student Adam Delu, Nichelson rose from his chair and paced the courtroom. Using newly learned body language and eye contact, he began questioning Delu in a clear, strong voice.
'Anything Unusual Happen?'
"Could you describe the scene at your party on April 11?" Nichelson began. "Yes, it was crowded and there was loud music playing both inside and outside," Delu replied.
"Did anything unusual happen at your party?"
"Yes, I was attacked by a stranger who later turned out to be a police officer who placed me under arrest."
Through further examination of Friendly and witnesses to the incident, the Marshall team sought to show that the officer violated Friendly's rights and that Friendly was merely protecting himself against a possibly dangerous party crasher when he shoved the police officer into the pool.
"Your honor, the prosecution has failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Carey Friendly knew those VCRs were stolen," Nichelson said in closing arguments. "One VCR was found in the unlocked cab of his pickup truck; the other was found on top of the television set in his parents' home.
"Why didn't Carey try to hide the VCRs? Why didn't he try to hide the evidence? The answer is very simple: Carey is not a criminal; he did not know those VCRs were stolen."
Simmons agreed and ruled the defendant not guilty on both counts. The scorers also found Marshall the victor.
Nichelson, along with Williams, was honored later with an award for his role as an attorney.
'Incredible Natural Ability'
After the trial, Nichelson and other members of the defense team gathered around Simmons to discuss their performances.