University Prep beat Eastside Catholic in the King County championship round of the 2011 YMCA high-school mock-trial competition.

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Babalu McGraw sashayed up to the witness stand Monday in King County Superior Court, set to testify in the case of a police officer who fatally shot an unarmed man.

The owner of a coffee shop that caters to police officers, she introduced herself to those assembled in Judge William Downing’s courtroom and joked that her parents must have thought they were naming a country song.

As the spectators giggled, Downing smiled appreciatively, knowing full well that witness performance is a big deal in cases like these — that is to say, cases in a mock-trial competition.

This particular fictional case involved a police officer who tracked an arson suspect into a dark alley and shot him dead. The officer believed the suspect had killed her canine partner and was holding a gun. In fact, the dog had died from a heart attack, and the suspect had been holding a cellphone, not a weapon.

University Prep senior Jenny Singer had worked since October to perfect her portrayal of Babalu McGraw in the King County mock-trial championship against Eastside Catholic. Her efforts won her the title of “outstanding witness.”

“University Prep was the first school that figured out how many points you could get by having a drama coach come in,” said Downing, who has been involved with mock-trial competitions for 22 years.

Every year, he said, the students get better and better, and it’s not all thanks to their acting skills. The students were scored on their ability to make coherent arguments, rated by a “jury” of volunteer lawyers. After the trial, which University Prep narrowly won, the lawyers offered the students critiques of their performances, doling out public-speaking tips and advice on how to be better lawyers.

As it stands, the three real lawyers agreed, the students are already impressive.

“You are better than a lot of the attorneys we see in this courtroom,” Senior Deputy Prosecutor Mindy Young told the two teams.

But the point of mock trial, Downing insisted, isn’t to churn out future lawyers, even though he swears in attorneys practically every year who once went through the program. Instead, he aims to turn the students into better citizens who are more attuned to social issues and current events.

Downing wrote the case in this competition. It just so happened that woodcarver John T. Williams was fatally shot by Seattle police Officer Ian Birk a few months later, adding to the relevance of the case.

“I love the application of law itself,” said University Prep senior Nitika Arora, who earned the award of “outstanding attorney” on Monday. She helped argue for the police officer’s defense.

Though Arora’s team won the case, her team’s mock-trial days aren’t over. Next up is the state championship in Olympia, where her team will be joined again by Eastside Catholic and other King County teams.

Before Downing announced the winner, he noted that he’d taken off his robe. He said he was no longer their judge.

“I’m the friend and supporter of all of you when you go down to Olympia,” Downing said.

Olivia Bobrowsky: 206-464-3195 or