Recognizing and Remembering Deryl Dantzler

NACDL's Board of Directors resolved to honor Deryl Dantzler.

This Resolution honors Deryl Dantzler for her pioneering work as an educator, mentor, and inspiration for generations of public and private defenders, trial skills teachers, and criminal defense mentors. With her brusque, brash, and brilliant voice, Deryl taught generations of defenders to breathe life into the Sixth Amendment rights to trial, effective assistance of counsel, and confrontation and shaped generations of trial lawyers to become mentors and teachers. Deryl did so by making the National Criminal Defense College (NCDC) a home for free-thinkers, contrarians, and innovators committed to the goal of preparing, training, and inspiring defenders to stand up to government power in the court room in order to give an accused a fair shake.

These efforts commenced when several national entities provided funding to establish a “college” to train criminal defense attorneys in the aftermath of Gideon v. Wainwright’s recognition of the right to counsel. In the following decades, Deryl created, shaped, and developed NCDC with the support of a handful of others including Albert Krieger, Ron Meshbesher, Jodie English, Bob Ritchie, Cat Bennett, and others. Together with the indomitable, much-beloved, and invaluable duo of Rosie Flanigan and Bellamy Johnston, both of whom managed the day-to-day operations of the College, Deryl found and nurtured a home for NCDC in Mercer Law School thanks to her position on the faculty there and “going to Macon” became a tradition and a battle cry for those wishing to become the best defenders and teachers in the United States.

Though Deryl was one of only a handful of female faculty members at the outset, she championed the notion of learning by doing, of being guided by a theory of the case, and of finding the heart of the case rather than focusing on technical niceties. Deryl integrated the faculty and transformed the lecture-only format to the now popular format of learning on-your-feet. Deryl not only recruited the best trial skills teachers but also created a laboratory of ideas in the old Victorian house that served as NCDC’s home. Faculty members would debate new techniques for the court room and classroom under Deryl’s ironic and critical gaze. Many of the techniques that we use now were first debated across the conference room table in that old and fragile structure.

Every year, Deryl welcomed the incoming classes of NCDC with a voice shaped by cigarettes, irony, and her formative years in Macon. Sitting on the edge of the stage, she half nurtured, half berated teachers and students alike with a message that resonated with the committed defenders whom she shaped into the finest core of teachers in the country. She used biting irony, gentle frowns, and her lived experience, all the while making it abundantly clear that she did not suffer fools gladly.

Deryl’s seminal article, “Why Johnny Can’t Lead” gives a sense of her biting wit and its rural color. Raised in Macon, Deryl preferred the concrete image to the esoteric metaphor. To wit, Deryl explained cross examination as follows in a section entitled, “Horses, Chickens, and Alligators and Alligators:”

I sometimes find it difficult to discuss cross-examination without resort to rural aphorism. Three other principles of cross-examination are of this genre:

  1. Always check out the fence line before you try to catch a wild horse.
  2. You can't push a flock of chickens.
  3. Never insult the alligators before you've finished crossing the swamp.

Deryl will always be the ghost in the machine of NCDC and an inspiration for anyone who sees government power as a threat to liberty. Deryl forged a path for defenders that we will tend in her memory with tears in our eyes when we think of her sitting before us and welcoming each class of NCDC and opening our hearts to the privilege of serving the most vulnerable.

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that NACDL will create the “Deryl Dantzler Scholarship Fund” to further expand the availability of legal education to those in need of financial assistance.

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