In the post below, NACDL Indigent Defense Counsel John Gross describes the first day of the training workshop.
16 June 2014
On Monday morning, we woke to the sound of a rooster crowing, bright sunshine and lots of humidity. Despite the tropical conditions, we suited up and got ready to begin the training. Five representatives from the Liberian Judicial Training Institute, along with seven of Liberia’s most experienced public defenders, joined us for breakfast. Outside on the terrace, we enjoyed a traditional Liberian breakfast of coffee, plantains, yams and coconut cake. The Liberians, all formally attired in dark suites, seemed not to mind the heat as we introduced ourselves over coffee. It took us all a few minutes to get used to the Liberian English of our colleagues, but it was clear from the start just how much they appreciated our being here in Liberia. We then headed inside to begin the training.
After some introductory remarks from the UNODC Program Director, the Coordinator of the Public Defenders and the Executive Director of the Judicial Institute we started the training. The subjects we planned to cover were based on the work of Rick Jones, who travelled to Monrovia several months ago to meet with the Liberian public defenders. Although Rick was unable to join us on this trip, we owe him a debt of gratitude for the work he did, which paved the way for all of us.
On the first day we planned to focus on topics that revolved around the attorney-client relationship, interviewing and investigation. Martin Sabelli began by discussing the role of the defense attorney in the adversarial system and then Elizabeth Kelley focused on the right to counsel guaranteed under the Liberian Constitution. After our lunch break we discussed the attorney-client relationship and introduced the concept of client-centered lawyering. Lisa Wayne wrapped up the day by doing a client interviewing exercise followed by a discussion of witness interviewing techniques.
Throughout the day the Liberian public defenders and trainers were enthusiastic participants in the training. As trainers, we spent a significant portion of the day just listening to what they had to say about their criminal justice system and about how they practice criminal defense. Much of what we heard sounded very familiar: too many cases, no investigators, and clients that don’t trust them. They encounter other systemic problems that exist in jurisdictions across the United States, such as the failure to appoint counsel at a defendant’s first appearance before a judge or magistrate. The vast majority of their clients are illiterate and live in extreme poverty, which means they often have to begin their interview with a defendant by explaining what a lawyer is and what role a public defender plays in the criminal justice system. One remarkable difference between the Liberian criminal justice system and our own, is their use of plea bargaining: only 10% to 15% of cases end in some type of plea bargain.
At one point during the day we were discussing how to deal with “difficult” clients, especially those clients who refused to acknowledge the evidence against them. The Liberian public defenders all began talking about their cases by saying “I have this guy…” and one attorney shared with us a Liberian saying: “One who bathes in a bath bucket cannot hide their nakedness.” The willingness of the Liberians to talk to us openly and honestly about their struggles as public defenders, to take ownership of their success and failures as defense attorneys, made it clear to us how committed they all are to defending the indigent. From that moment on we were all convinced that despite the distance we had travelled, we were at home among fellow defense attorneys.
After the training session ended, we changed out of our suits and sat on the terrace. Several of the Liberian public defenders are also staying at the guest house where the training is being held and they joined us. Since the training session was intense, none of us wanted to talk shop. Instead, our Liberian colleagues were kind enough to answer the questions we had about what they referred to as the “crisis” in Liberia. We were all very grateful for the impromptu lesson on the history of Liberia. Later that evening, a group of Peace Corps Volunteers who have been in Liberia for over a year teaching math and science in elementary schools arrived at the guest house. As we ate our dinner and a World Cup match played on the TV in the common room, some of the volunteers shared with us their experiences in Liberia. By the end of the day, we all felt that we had learned much more than we had taught.