Training Day 1: Attorney-Client Relationship, Interviewing and Investigation

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.

NACDL Indigent Defense Counsel John Gross speaks at Monday’s workshop. (Photo Credit: Lisa Wayne)

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.

NACDL Past President Lisa Wayne speaks at Monday’s workshop. (Photo Credit: Lisa Wayne)

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.


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The Journey: Getting to Kakata, Liberia

In the post below, NACDL Indigent Defense Counsel John Gross describes the team’s journey from the US to Kakata, Liberia, where the training is being held.

15 June 2014

International travel is never ever easy. A delayed flight or a cancellation can add hours or even days to the time it takes to get to your destination. It was for that very reason that we all were booked on the most direct flight from the United States to Liberia: a flight leaving JFK that would make one stop in Accra, Ghana before heading on to Monrovia. We never expected that just getting to JFK would be a problem. While Elizabeth, Martin, Lisa and I all arrived well in advance of our flight to Monrovia, the flight that was supposed to get Margy Meyers to JFK was cancelled. Before we even left the United States, we had lost an important part of our team. We’re all just hoping that Margy can find a way to catch up to us.

After a grueling overnight flight that lasted 10 hours, followed by a two hour layover in Accra, and then a relatively short flight to Monrovia, the four of us stepped off the plane and made our way through customs. We were greeted by several UNODC staff who had arranged for our transportation from the airport to the town of Kakata, where the training will take place. It was a bright and sunny afternoon, despite the fact that we arrived at the start of Liberia’s rainy season. The fresh air that poured in through our car’s open windows was a welcome change from the chilly pressurized cabin of the plane.

As we left the airport we were almost immediately surrounded by acres of rubber trees planted in carefully measured rows, thin white and brown trunks that turn into a canopy of waving green. The long lines of carefully planted trees stood out in sharp contrast to the chaotic foliage that surrounded them. Long before Liberia’s civil wars, Firestone leased thousands of acres of land from the Liberian government and built one of the world’s largest rubber plantations. During the civil wars, production ceased and only recently has Firestone returned to Liberia and started production once again, although on a very limited scale. As we pass abandoned buildings and derelict equipment, I’m reminded of the shuttered manufacturing plants that you see across our own rust belt.

We passed small clusters of buildings constructed of whatever materials must have been available at the time. Some are not much more than wooden frames with palm fronds for roofing, while others are more sturdy brick or cinderblock structures with corrugated metal roves. People roast corn on the cob on metal grates over hot coals beside the road and women pump water from wells. We see children in graduation robes walking along the road and men wearing bright jerseys playing soccer on unkempt fields. Every vehicle we pass on the road seems to be dangerously overloaded. Trucks seem twice as big because they carry so much and have a half dozen men balancing atop the load. Motorbikes carry at least two but more often three riders. Four door cars and rusting SUVs are filled to capacity. Our drivers easily overtake whatever traffic we encounter and do their best to navigate the potholes along the way.

Finally, the four of us, along with our companions from the UNODC, reached Kakata and Kem’s Guest House, where the training will be held. We each settle into our rooms, which aren’t fancy but do come with the luxury of air conditioning, and then regroup for a simple dinner of chicken and potatoes while we all wait for World Cup coverage to begin. Tomorrow morning we will be getting up early to go over our plans for the training. We’ll have to figure out how to divide up the sessions that Margy was going to lead; it really is a shame her flight was cancelled and we’ll really miss her tomorrow. We’re all anxious to meet the Liberian public defenders and the trainers from the Judicial Institute and get their feedback on the training materials that we’ve developed for them.

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NACDL Members Travel to Liberia to Conduct Five-Day Criminal Defense Training

On Saturday, June 14, 2014, a team of five members of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), led by NACDL Indigent Defense Counsel John Gross, departed for Liberia to conduct a five-day training workshop with Liberian public defenders and trainers from the James A.A. Pierre Judicial Institute in an effort to improve the quality of criminal defense in the country. The workshop is a part of an ongoing project of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC): Promoting Rule of Law & Governance in the Criminal Justice System in Liberia. The training will begin today, Monday, June 16, 2014 and conclude on Friday, June 20, 2014.

Increased training for public defenders in Liberia is an important component of improving the country’s overall criminal justice system. Ensuring the adversarial process functions properly is necessary to increase public trust in the criminal justice system and to secure to all Liberians the right to counsel guaranteed to them by Article 21(c) of the Liberian Constitution.

To this end, members of the NACDL team will provide training to public defenders in Liberia. The training will focus specifically on raising the pre-trial and trial advocacy skills of Liberia’s public defenders. NACDL is also the process of building a “criminal defense manual,” which will be used to assist in the training of future Liberian defense lawyers. Earlier this year, NACDL Secretary and Executive Director of the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem Rick Jones, traveled to Liberia to support the planning and research of the upcoming training.

The members of NACDL’s team include: John Gross (Washington, DC), Elizabeth Kelley (Spokane, Washington), Marjorie A. Meyers (Houston, Texas), Martin A. Sabelli (San Francisco, California), and Lisa M. Wayne (Denver, Colorado).

This is the second time that NACDL has sent members to Liberia on such a mission. In 2009, a team of NACDL members traveled to Monrovia, Liberia to work with the Liberian Supreme Court’s James A.A. Pierre Judicial Institute. During that trip, NACDL conducted an initial training attend by all lawyers at Liberia’s Public Defense Office, which had been formed earlier in 2009. That training was conducted together with representatives of the ABA Rule of Law Initiative, the International Legal Assistance Consortium, and the Liberian Bar, training public defenders and members of the private bar in fundamentals of criminal defense. That training also included a day of instruction for Liberian journalists covering the Supreme Court of Liberia.

This blog will be regularly updated over the coming days with reports and photos from the team in Liberia. For more information on Liberia and its legal system, check the links on the right side of this page.


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