Sharing the Best of America: NACDL Returns to Africa (Inside NACDL)

NACDL received an invitation to provide training and technical assistance for public defenders in Liberia. NACDL will develop a curriculum and training manuals.

Access to The Champion archive is one of many exclusive member benefits. It’s normally restricted to just NACDL members. However, this content, and others like it, is available to everyone in order to educate the public on why criminal justice reform is a necessity.

Regardless of one’s personal view of America’s response to the 9/11 attacks, there is a general recognition that many in the international community have been troubled by policies and actions that seem inconsistent with the nation’s historic commitment to the rule of law. The often bizarre proceedings at Guantánamo Bay,1 the use of extraordinary rendition, drone strikes, and recent disclosures of NSA surveillance have not enhanced the reputation of the United States as a nation devoted to the rule of law. But it is also indisputable that through every challenge a core aspect of the American system of justice remains inviolate: a deep and abiding commitment to the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

The decision to enshrine that right in the Bill of Rights, to interpret it as requiring the state to provide counsel to individuals who lack the resources to engage their own attorney, and to require that the lawyer must be effective represents the pinnacle of American values. NACDL certainly understands the shortcomings of our system of justice and this column has addressed the challenges and deficiencies that afflict the nation’s indigent defense system,2 but those critiques merely reflect a continuing desire to achieve “a more perfect union.” This nation’s commitment to provide representation to every accused person — to ensure that no individual must stand alone when government exercises its power to condemn, imprison, or execute — is an untarnished source of pride for all Americans and a life mission for NACDL’s members.

It is against this backdrop that NACDL received an invitation in October to provide training and technical assistance for the public defenders in Liberia. This extraordinary opportunity to share the defense bar’s expertise with the lawyers in that developing nation marks a return engagement. NACDL first sent a delegation to Liberia in the summer of 2009 to provide training to public defenders and journalists who cover court proceedings.3 The training, which was supported by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), was designed to strengthen the defense component of the Liberian justice system. Over the course of five days of intensive work, the NACDL teams provided comprehensive instruction in every aspect of the defense function to 21 trainees — public defenders from throughout Liberia.4 The Republic of Liberia, which emerged in the early 1800s as a colony of freed American slaves, became an independent constitutional republic in 1847, making it the oldest democracy in Africa. Democracy and the rule of law have not been uninterrupted, and in recent years the nation has been beset by civil war, poverty, and illiteracy. But Liberia does maintain a commitment to the right to counsel, and to provide counsel for individuals who cannot afford it is an explicit constitutional right.5 

The 2009 training was exceptionally well received, both by the line defenders and by the Judicial Institute, which exercises overall supervision of the justice system. All parties seemed eager for NACDL to build on that foundational program, but the logistics of coordinating further support proved difficult. Fortunately, however, after numerous efforts to procure the necessary support and funding, NACDL will return to Liberia. This new initiative will be far more extensive, with potentially far greater impact. It will unfold in several stages. Initially, NACDL will participate in a week-long needs analysis during which a lead trainer will meet with Liberian officials, public defenders, and representatives of other entities working to support the development of the Liberian criminal justice system. That task was undertaken in late October by NACDL Secretary Rick Jones, who is the executive director of the Neighborhood Defender Services of Harlem, a preeminent public defender office in New York City. Based on the initial assessment, NACDL will develop a curriculum and training manuals for both trainers and line attorneys. NACDL teams will return to Liberia over the course of the next year to conduct a training of trainers and a subsequent validation workshop.

NACDL’s mission embraces myriad public policy and reform initiatives. But from the days of its founding, its core mission has been to provide education and support for the criminal defense bar. During the past 18 months, NACDL has provided live or Web-based training to nearly 10,000 attorneys. In the coming months, however, perhaps the most impactful education and support will be that provided to a cadre of lawyers who toil in a distant land but share a common bond to serve as Liberty’s Last Champion.


  1. 1. See, e.g., Mason C. Clutter, The NSA Holds the Key to Client Confidences at GTMO, The Champion, Sept/Oct 2013 at 55; Natalie Salvaggio, The Continued Abrogation of Due Process and Fair Trials, The Champion, July 2013 at 62.
  2. 2. Norman L. Reimer, After Half a Century, Gideon’s Promise Remains Elusive, The Champion, Jan/Feb 2012 at 7; Norman L. Reimer, A Double Win for Indigent Defense, The Champion, June 2010 at 7.
  3. 3. The delegation included NACDL members Daniel N. Arshack and Andrew Patel from New York City, Kerry Drue from the U.S. Virgin Islands, Elizabeth Kelley from Cleveland, Kim Savo from Los Angeles, and NACDL Public Affairs and Communications Director Jack King.
  4. 4. For a comprehensive account of the 2009 training mission to Liberia, see Daniel N. Arshack, Liberia Diary, The Champion, November 2009 at 20.
  5. 5. Article 21, subsection (i) of the Liberian Constitution provides: “In all trials, hearings, interrogatories, and other proceedings where a person is accused of a criminal offense, the accused shall have the right to counsel of his choice; and where the accused is unable to secure such representation, the Republic shall make available legal aid services to ensure the protection of his rights.”

Featured Products