Riverhead team triumphs in youth court competition

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO: Riverhead Youth Court team members (from left) Reilly Butler, Pola Dobrzynski, Georgianne Fenech, Jaclyn Griffith, Tyrek Highsmith, Sandra Ibrahim, Leon Pera and Elissa Patrick at Riverhead Town Justice Court. Not pictured: Karli Cahill and Amber Kempermann.

The Riverhead girls basketball team wasn’t the only local team to win a title and make history this month.

The Riverhead Youth Court took first place the 10th Annual Youth Court Competition last Thursday at Southampton Town Justice Court.

The local team is made up of 46 students from grades 8 through 12 who hail from the Riverhead, Southold, Rocky Point and Shoreham-Wading River districts, although the team is overwhelmingly from Riverhead.

They competed against youth court teams from Huntington, Brookhaven and Southampton towns.

“This is the seventh year that we’ve been competing and we finally won first place. This is our first win,” said Detective Evelyn Hobson of the Riverhead Town police juvenile aid bureau, who along with youth counselor Beth Maccagli, serves as mentors for the program.

Riverhead has had a youth court for about 20 years and was the first East End municipality to do so, Det. Hobson said.

Youth court is not simply a mock trial. It involves real cases involving youth offenders referred to the youth court by probation and the local town justice court.

And while youngsters play the roles of judge, jurors, prosecutor and defense attorney in a youth court, the rulings that result from the court are also real sentences that must be followed.

“They are non-violent cases,” Det. Hobson said. “Sentences are usually anywhere from five to 45 hours of community service, or sometimes a letter of apology or restitution in something like a graffiti charge.”

The type of crimes that usually end up before youth court are things like graffiti or vandalism, petit larceny, criminal mischief or unlawful possession of a weapon for someone under age 16, Det. Hobson said.

Youth court is held every Wednesday night, starting in October and running through the end of March.

For the first six to eight weeks, local attorneys Mary Hartill and George Harkin worked with the kids, teaching them about law and critiquing them on their defense or prosecutorial skills, Det. Hobson said.

“After that, we’re ready for business,” she said.

On weeks when there are no trials, the group has had speakers from either the legal profession or from law enforcement speak to the students. In past years, the kids have been visited the chambers of County Court Judge Arthur Pitts of Southold and seen parts of criminal trials.

“Last year, we heard a segment of the Patchogue murder trial,” said Riverhead junior Jaclyn Griffith, referring to the Marcelo Lucero murder. “It was very interesting.”

The students in the youth court competition are rated by a panel of judges, two from each youth court, who cannot judge their own court. They are rated based on their opening and closing statement, characterizations and preparation, courtroom decorum, who they question witnesses, and other factors spelled out in a score sheet for the competition.

James Shine, a junior from Southold High School, said he first heard about the youth court two years ago and jumped at the opportunity.

“I have always wanted to be a defense attorney,” he said, adding that being in the youth court has given him the opportunity to get first hand experience in his chosen field before he even gets to college.

“I wish there was one out in Southold,” he said of the youth court.

Sandra Ibrahim, a ninth-grader in Shoreham-Wading River High School, actually started in youth court last year when she was an eighth grader at St. Isidore’s in Riverhead, where they handed out flyers about youth court.

“I never really thought about being a lawyer and my mom said, ‘Why don’t you try it,” Sandra recalled. “I thought it was only for one night. Apparently it’s not. But I tried it with my friends and I liked it a lot.”

She’s now even looking to become a lawyer.

“At first I wanted to be a doctor, but now I’m leaning towards prosecution,” she said. “And next week is the first time I will be a judge.”

Reilly Butler, an 11th grader from Riverhead High School who has been in the program since eighth grade, said she frequently gets to be judge. But that’s not her long-time goal.

“I’m more interested in education, being a teacher, but this helps with the public speaking, and being in front of crowds, which is something I’m going to have to be used to if I’m a teacher,” she said.

While the names of the jurors and attorneys and defendants are all confidential, it’s inevitable that the youth court kids will end up playing a role in a case involving someone they know.

But both Det. Hobson and Ms. Griffith said there has never been a problem in which someone didn’t like a sentence and took it up with a student outside the court.

Tyrek Highsmith, a 10th grader from Riverhead High School, said they really learn a lot from working with Mr. Harkin and Ms. Hartill.

Students agree that one area where the program really helps them is in public speaking.

“I used to be nervous, even in school, answering questions, I used to get all red and everything. But now, getting up in front of all these people, and especially since I didn’t even know most of them, I’ve become more comfortable and just kind of faced my fears and realized it’s not so hard. I’m really happy I was able to overcome that because it’s part of life,” said Rachel Wooley, a senior and one of three students from Rocky Point High School in the Riverhead Youth Court.

Rachel said she originally wanted to become a police officer, but now, she’s thinking of becoming a prosecuting attorney.

But not a defense attorney.

“Doing this program has made me rule out defense,” she said. “I don’t really like defending people. I like prosecution. That really helped me, because imagine going into college and wasting all that time, and finding out you don’t like it, when you could have just done it here.”

But she said her one stint as defense attorney ended in a not-guilty ruling for her client, even though they changed the plea just 15 minutes before trial and had to completely change their strategy.

“That really helped prove to myself that this is something I’m really good at,” she said.

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