As a Washington State Court of Appeals panel listened to arguments for and against reversing a local murder conviction on Monday, the school bell rang.
The students sitting in the gallery — er, the bleachers — kept their seats and continued watching the hearing. In an unusual session, Division II Chief Judge Jill Johanson and Judges Lisa Worswick and Rich Melnick listened to local cases Monday morning in the Hudson’s Bay High School’s gymnasium.
“We aren’t used to seeing a lot of people out there,” Johanson said, motioning to the audience. In the Tacoma courtroom, there’s typically a handful of people who attend hearings; it’s also a much smaller, quieter room than the gymnasium.
Copies of the cases were sent in advance to the school so U.S. history teachers could brief their students, who have been studying landmark Supreme Court cases. Scott Horenstein, a local lawyer and Hudson’s Bay alumnus, helped set up the event through the high school’s foundation. He has no memory of the Court of Appeals ever visiting the school previously.
The first and most notable appeal the judges considered Monday was the murder conviction of Troy Allen Fisher. Fisher was sentenced in July 2013 to 40 years in prison for shooting his father twice on Aug. 7, 2011, at their Brush Prairie home and then stealing several thousand dollars from the victim’s two bank accounts. Edward “Bud” Fisher’s body has never been found. The students appeared wide-eyed as they learned details of a gruesome case that took place in their community.
Among the oral arguments raised on appeal Monday was Fisher’s choice to represent himself at his murder trial. Though the judge said Fisher was ill-prepared to defend himself, he was allowed to go ahead. During the trial, Fisher’s standby attorney, Bob Yoseph, made a motion asserting that Fisher was incompetent to defend himself. After the state rested its case, the court denied Fisher’s request to have standby counsel reappointed.
On Monday, that issue was raised by Fisher’s appellate attorney, John Hays.
“The court used the wrong standard,” he said.
On the other hand, deputy prosecuting attorney Anne Cruser argued that during his trial, Fisher was manipulative and attempted to delay proceedings by repeatedly asking for new attorneys.
In criminal proceedings, defendants have a right to an attorney. They also have the right to represent themselves and be able to consult an attorney — the standby counsel — on technical matters. In those cases, the defendants still speak for themselves in court, including addressing the jury, calling and questioning witnesses, and making objections.
“Is that common?” student Nick Wood asked after both sides made their oral arguments. “Do people ask to represent themselves a lot?”
“Not really,” Worswick said. Judges advise defendants that it’s not a good idea to represent yourself, but you have a right to do so.
Besides the murder conviction case, the judges also listened to a property dispute and a rezoning case between Klickitat County and Friends of the White Salmon River.
Judges travel to let the public know what they do. It’s been a while since they’ve traveled due to budget cuts. Usually, when they travel to Clark County, the courthouse hosts them, but Melnick said holding court at Hudson’s Bay would give the students a real learning opportunity, Horenstein said in an email.
Austin Collins was one of several students who got to have lunch with the judges afterward.
“I’ve always been interested in the court system,” she said.
The 17-year-old said she regularly watches “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” after school. She’s debating between pursuing a career in law and using the dental assistant’s license she earned through the Clark County Skills Center.
“If given the chance to go to law school, I would take it,” Collins said.
She was most excited to ask the judges during lunch what influenced their career choices and how they got to be where they are now. The judges were high-schoolers once, after all, and had to start somewhere.
Johanson is a Columbia River High School graduate. “I don’t know that I dare say that here,” she joked to the Hudson’s Bay students.
After getting asked about their first jobs, Johanson replied that she worked in Hazel Dell at Dunkin’ Donuts. Melnick was a newspaper carrier in the fifth grade. Worswick baby-sat and was a dishwasher at a Portland hospital.
Between sessions, judges answered a handful of other questions before taking a recess.
“We’re going to adjourn class — excuse me. We’re going to adjourn court,” Johanson said with a laugh.
The judges will later issue a written decision about each of the cases. In appellate cases, the trial court’s ruling can be affirmed, overturned or returned to the lower court for additional proceedings.