Training Day 2: Discussing the Problems Public Defenders in Liberia Face, Bail Practices, Right to Counsel, and More from Kakata

In the post below, NACDL Indigent Defense Counsel John Gross describes the second day of the training workshop.

17 June 2014

This morning we joined our Liberian colleagues outside on the terrace for coffee and Liberian rice bread: a dense bread made from soaked and pounded rice sweetened with bananas. We had noticed the day before that Liberians had a unique way of greeting one another. At first glance it appeared to be a simple handshake, but upon closer observation we could see that as they withdrew their hands they snapped each other’s fingers. When we asked about the “Liberian handshake” our colleagues showed us how to do it and assured us that by the end of the week we would be able to shake hands like a Liberian.

After Monday’s training session, the coordinator of the public defender’s office, Counselor Flomo, had mentioned that he thought their office would benefit from a set of guiding principles, something that they currently lack. Based on that suggestion, we decided to begin the training session on Tuesday with the ABA’s Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System. What we anticipated would be a half hour session where we introduced the Ten Principles turned into over an hour long discussion about the structural problems with the public defense system in Liberia. The Liberians quickly embraced the Ten Principles and then began debating to what extent they thought they could be implemented in Liberia. What was evident from their debate was how much they had already been thinking about issues like independence, conflicts of interest, caseloads, resources, continuing legal education and supervision.

Day 2 of the training workshop. (Photo Credit: Lisa Wayne)

Day 2 of the training workshop. (Photo Credit: Lisa Wayne)

One surprising fact that came out during this discussion was that Liberian public defenders are often assigned all of the defendants in a case. Although Liberia has established a nationwide public defense system with public defenders assigned to individual counties, they have not established any type of alternative provider of indigent defense in the case of conflicts of interest. The public defenders are often forced to interview multiple defendants in order to determine who they can and should represent. To all of us, this was an obvious breach of legal ethics, but since there is no mechanism to appoint conflict counsel in cases where there are co-defendants, Liberian public defenders are faced with a choice: refuse to represent some defendants and let them languish in jail without any representation, or try their best to represent the often contradictory interests of multiple defendants.

During this debate over how to put into practice the Ten Principles, one of the Margibi County judges paid a visit to the training session. While the judge was very pleased that the training was taking place, she made it very clear, in no uncertain terms, that she was not happy about the fact that the public defender assigned to her court was not invited to the training that was taking place in her county. Of course, the purpose of the training was to “train the trainers” who would be able to work with all of the public defenders in Liberia. That being said, it was clear the judge felt that the failure to include the Margibi County public defender was disrespectful. What struck all of us about the judge’s reaction was that she was the one who was advocating for “her” public defender. We all agreed that we don’t know many judges in the United States that would have been angry over the fact that a public defender wasn’t invited to a training session. After the judge left, the Training Coordinator from the Judicial Institute sighed and said that there was only one public defender for Magribi County which is why they could not ask him to the training; it would have left all of his clients without representation for an entire week. I said that if that was the case and you had invited him, I would have expected the judge to have complained that cases in her court were being unnecessarily delayed because “her” public defender was attending our training.

Later on in the day, we learned that in many counties in Liberia there is only one public defender and with the exception of Montserrado County, the county that includes the capital city of Monrovia, there are at most two public defenders. The public defenders mentioned on several occasions how difficult it was to do their jobs in isolation. As we thought about this, and we considered how much we relied on the advice and encouragement of other defense attorneys, we wondered how the Liberian public defenders we were training, all of whom had been working for the office for several years, had been able to sustain themselves. We thought about it in terms of a tribal culture: something applicable to criminal defense lawyers. Perhaps the worst punishment that can be meted out in that culture is not imprisonment or even death, but exile and the public defenders we were training had be subjected to exactly that.

Day 2 of the training workshop. (Photo Credit: Lisa Wayne)

Day 2 of the training workshop. (Photo Credit: Lisa Wayne)

The session resumed with Lisa Wayne going over tactics for effective pretrial release advocacy. What became apparent was that despite the fact that most Liberians live in extreme poverty, the criminal justice system relies heavily on cash bail. The Liberian Criminal Procedure Law even recommends that judges set bail based on the number of months of potential incarceration multiplied by $25; an excessive amount for most indigent defendants. Next, Martin Sabelli had some of the public defenders practice making bail arguments and then demonstrated how to give constructive criticism, an important skill for trainers to have. We then discussed suppression hearings and did simulations that addressed both the suppression of physical evidence and a defendant’s statements, and I got to play the role of a Liberian National Police officer.

Although the decisions of the US Supreme Court are often referenced by the Liberian Supreme Court, Liberian case law regarding the admission of a defendant’s statements is more protective of a client’s right to counsel than our own law. Liberian Criminal Procedure Law requires that “cautions” be given to suspects whenever a police officer questions them, even if they are not in custody. These “cautions” mirror our Miranda rights and are even referred to by Liberians as “Miranda” rights. That being said, the Liberian Supreme Court has shown a reluctance to permit the waiver of these rights in the absence of counsel, a reluctance no doubt informed by the fact that Liberia has an 85% illiteracy rate. Finally, Elizabeth Kelley stressed the importance of filing and arguing a motion for a continuance of trial, something of critical importance for public defenders when it is common for a judge to give defense counsel only a few days to prepare for a trial.

That evening, one of the UNODC drivers offered to drive us around Kakata. The main road that runs through Kakata is an important link between Monrovia on the coast and the city of Gbarnga which lies in the interior of the country closer to Guinea. The streets were filled with vendors selling from underneath umbrellas and behind them sat rows of small “business centers,” the Liberian term for a general store.

The town is home to two important educational institutions: The Booker Washington Institute (BWI) and the Kakata Rural Teacher Training Institute. BWI is Liberia’s first agricultural and vocational school, which was founded in 1929 and was named after American educator Booker T. Washington. It closed for over a decade during the conflict in Liberia, but it recently reopened and now has approximately 1,800 students. The Teacher Training Institute is one of the few educational institutions in Liberia dedicated to producing the teachers and educators that are so badly needed. We toured the grounds of BWI and saw Liberian students playing basketball, marching in formation in what appeared to be a version of Liberian ROTC and lining up to register for an electrician’s class. Many of the buildings on campus were empty shells, stark reminders of the fact that not so long ago the children who had hoped to be students at BWI came there not as students but as soldiers, not with books but with guns.

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