In regional mock trial, Providence students convict, defend 'eco-terrorist'

Providence Academy prosecutors Luke Zwanziger and Brian Buck (seated) register evidentiary objections as the Grant Union High School defense attorney cross-examines Jon Tollefson of Providence Academy (right) at the regional mock trial competition in Baker City. Presiding over the case is Judge Mahoney (center) of Malheur County. Submitted photo

An eco-terrorist who burned down a ski lodge in the mountains of California, destroying acres of old-growth timber in the process, was convicted of second-degree arson recently in a case prosecuted by a group of Wallowa County teenagers.

Yes, teenagers.

The case was a complex figment of some lawyer's imagination, facts, fiction, and hearsay assembled as fodder for the regional mock trial competition in Baker City.

Eight teams of high school students from around the region, including one from Providence Academy in Lostine, participated in the day-long event at the Baker County courthouse, competing for the right to advance to the state contest.

The mock trial was the culmination of months of preparation on the part of mock trial teams and their attorney-coaches, who pored over the 40-page case document to familiarize themselves with the facts of the case.

The Providence Academy team, coached by Enterprise attorney Rahn Hostetter, practiced two to three days a week for four months getting ready for the competiton, a first for the Christain-backed private high school.

"It goes way beond debate and involves all kids of different skills with respect to speech," said Hostetter, who familiarized his team members with the rules of evidence and other elements of a modern criminal trial.

In addition to playing the role of both prosecutors and defense attorneys, students served as witnesses in the case. Some even played the part of Syd Price, who took the stand to proclaim his innocence. By the end of the day Price, the alleged arsonist in the case, was tried 24 times by a total of eight teams from six schools. Price repeatedly denied that he was the ringleader of the group responsible for the arson.

The case was tried so many times because each team had the opportunity to prosecute and defend the case in a series of three rounds. Each round was judged by a three-member panel that included two attorneys, including a judge, and one educator, who ruled on motions and critiqued the teams at the conclusion of each contest. Wallowa County District Attorney Dan Ousley served as one of the judges.

In addition to Providence Academy the schools represented included Baker, Vale, Burns, John Day, and Ontario. Teams from Baker and Vale were declared the winners of the contest and will compete in the state competition this weekend at the Mark Hatfield federal courthouse in Portland. The same case will be tried at the state contest and at the national contest later this spring in New Orleans.

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