History of NCDC

Pursuing Justice by Empowering Defenders

The National Criminal Defense College (NCDC) was incorporated in 1985 by a dedicated group of committed and talented criminal defense attorneys from all over the United States.  Since then, NCDC has empowered over 9,000 defense attorneys with transformative trial-skills training through its comprehensive Trial Practice Institute and shorter weekend programs on specific trial skills topics, all staffed by faculty who are talented and successful courtroom lawyers, trainers and coaches.

We believe that those facing criminal accusations by their governments, the consequences of which are often life-shattering, deserve to be represented by client-centered, trial ready, zealous counsel dedicated to the highest caliber of legal defense. 

Today NCDC is the premier and longest-established provider of trial skills training for criminal defense practitioners in the United States.

A Brief History

In the beginning…the National College for Criminal Defense, 1973-1984

In order to explain the storied history of the National Criminal Defense College and its flagship
program, the Deryl Dantzler Trial Practice Institute, we have to start with its precursor,
the National College for Criminal Defense.

The 1960’s and 1970’s saw the creation of national training programs for judges (the National Judicial College, 1963)iii and prosecutors (the National College of District Attorneys, 1970).iv A few short years after Gideon v. Wainwright, people saw the need to create a national training program designed exclusively for criminal defense practitioners. Prominent members of the defense bar, including several leaders of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers secured funding from the American Bar Association, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, and the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. The National College for Criminal Defense Lawyers and Public Defenders (later shortened to the “National College for Criminal Defense” or the “College”) was born of this effort.

In the summer of 1973, the College held its inaugural training session at the University of Houston (which also housed the National College of District Attorneys). It consisted of three weeks of lectures by top notch criminal defense lawyers from across the nation. There were stunning presentations by some of the most renowned practitioners of the time, including Charles Garry, Bobby Lee Cook, Gerry Spence, and many others. Although the lectures were truly outstanding, the leadership of the College soon realized that the lecture-only format was not an effective way to transform how lawyers actually practice in court. The learning was too passive and, if anything, facilitated imitating the greats when the real goal was to find the power in adapting the techniques to one’s own personal voice and style in the courtroom.

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To address these issues, the College leadership switched to a three-part training day: 6 hours of daily practice in small groups, followed by faculty demonstrations, and then a lecture about key aspects of the next day’s topic. Professional actors were hired to play the parts of witnesses who would challenge participants during cross-examination to prepare for true-to-life, difficult witnesses. Each of the small groups stayed together for the entire session with rotating faculty members so that participants were exposed to instructors with several different courtroom styles. The new format was first implemented in two two-week sessions in the summer of 1976. It came to be known as the Trial Practice Institute.

Despite solid attendance and enthusiasm, the National College for Criminal Defense struggled financially as outside funding for the program dried up. Eventually, the College was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1983. This setback was especially disheartening, since the National Judicial College and National College of District Attorneys both continued to thrive with generous support from foundations.v However, many knew just how invaluable the College had been in training a steady stream of fiercely talented, skilled, and inspired defenders, and they simply refused to let the Trial Practice Institute die. A group of dedicated defenders cobbled together funds from several sources and willed a way to conduct a Trial Practice Institute in San Diego in the summer of 1984.

Buoyed by the success of the 1984 Trial Practice Institute and determined that this important work must go on, a core group of faculty decided to reorganize and start over. They approached law schools about providing a new home for the Trial Practice Institute. There were bids from various institutions (including some very prestigious ones – Harvard, for example). Deryl Dantzler, a standout member of the former NCCD faculty (highly respected for both her skill as a teacher and as a practitioner) was a professor at Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law in Macon, GA. For this reason and because Mercer supported the mission and goals of the Trial Practice Institute, Mercer became the new home.

The National Criminal Defense College at Mercer’s Walter F. George School of Law, 1985-2018

Deryl Dantzler was selected to lead the new organization as its “Dean.”vi A Board of Directors was formed and articles of incorporation were filed for the National Criminal Defense College on March 26, 1985.  The Founding Board consisted of Bobby Lee Cook (Summerville, GA), Judy Clarke (San Diego, CA), Louis  Dugas, Jr. (Orange, TX), Nancy Hollander (Albuquerque, NM), Albert Krieger (Miami, FL), Robert Rose, Jr.  (Cheyenne, WY), James Shellow (Milwaukee, WI), and James R. Willis (Cleveland, OH).  

With the lessons of the demise of the NCCD in mind, the newly-named Dean of the National Criminal  Defense College was determined to conserve expenses, yet continue to produce a high-quality program. 

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Mercer University School of Law donated its facilities free of charge for the Trial Practice Institute.  Faculty members continued to volunteer their time to support the effort. Affordable housing was  secured at the old downtown Macon Hilton. After the Hilton closed, participants stayed in various  inexpensive Macon hotels where amenities tended towards the spartan. Members of local churches  who supported the College’s mission treated participants to home cooking. Participants with rental cars  offered rides to and from the law school to those who could not afford the expense of car rentals, adding  to the supportive atmosphere and sense of community that developed among attendees.

Deryl’s small,  but dedicated, staff of two made everyone feel welcome with authentic Southern hospitality. They  encouraged participants and faculty alike to unwind from the rigor of the day’s activities by visiting local  restaurants, enjoying the Macon music scene, and supporting Macon’s minor league baseball team, the  “Macon Whoopies.” Under Deryl’s leadership, the new College’s reputation soared as graduates of the  Trial Practice Institute both reported and demonstrated their newfound trial skills in courtrooms across  the country. During this period, fellow criminal defense lawyers would simply ask each other if they had  been to “Macon” when referring to the Trial Practice Institute. “Macon” became synonymous with a  transformative, life-changing experience. 

The Faculty

It has always been a high honor to be invited to teach on the faculty.
The deans prioritized the ability to teach over name recognition, much to the chagrin of some noted trial lawyers who vied for appointments to the NCCD’s and later NCDC’s prestigious faculty. While many of the College’s early faculty were successful private defense attorneys, the College also sought out gifted career public defenders. One stellar example was Jim Doherty, a Cook County Public Defender (in Chicago, IL) of over 40 years who headed that office from 1972 to 1986. (viii)

Jim went to night school at DePaul Law while working as a railroad switchman for the Illinois Central Railroad. He kept a picture in his office of the Statue of Liberty with a man above it holding an umbrella to keep the flame of freedom alive. Having immigrated from Ireland, he knew what it was like to be an outcast and he had a fierce commitment to excellence in representing the poor.

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There is a tradition with the College for faculty to gather with participants in the evenings to socialize which traces back to NCCD times. Back then, the gathering spot was on the top floor of the high-rise dorms that housed participants at the University of Houston. It was dubbed the “Cave of the Winds” in part because of the welcome breezes that brought relief from the heat. The name “Cave of the Winds” also alluded to the regaling of war stories from trial battles won and lost between faculty and participants alike, until late into the night. Many said they learned as much or more from their time in the Cave as they did during the scheduled daily exercises.

As was true of most institutions in the mid-70’s, the original NCCD faculty was primarily white and male. It would be several years before women and non-white defenders were teaching routinely. The diversity of NCDC’s faculty has grown greatly and will continue to do so. Today’s diverse NCDC faculty, like the NCCD faculty before them, are fiercely committed to the mission of the College. Many have come for years without seeking travel reimbursement to help the College financially. In addition, nearly all current NCDC faculty members donate money to the Deryl Dantzler Scholarship Fund, which continues the tradition of providing assistance to participants who cannot afford to attend without financial support. (ix)

Approximately one-third of Trial Practice Institute participants are public defenders. Even the best-funded state and local public defender offices often have to contend with shockingly low training budgets while training budgets for prosecutors and law enforcement have soared. (x)

The late Don Fiedler was one faculty member who supported the College both in life (sponsoring a Trial Practice Institute attendee each year) and even in his passing. The end of his 2008 obituary in the Nebraska World Herald reads, “in lieu of flowers, [please send] Memorials to the National Criminal Defense College.” (xi)

The following year, a gift of $150,000 was made to establish the Fiedler Memorial Educational Fund in Don’s honor for the benefit of Trial Practice Institute hopefuls from Nebraska who have come to the Trial Practice Institute each year since free of charge.

Changes in the Leadership of the College and the Location of the Trial Practice Institute

Deryl Dantzler served as Dean of the National Criminal Defense College from 1985 until 2014. Laura Hogue served as Interim Dean and then Dean from 2014 through July of 2017. The Board of the College appointed NCDC faculty members Karen Smolar and Natasha Perdew Silas to serve jointly as the third Deans of the National Criminal Defense College starting August 1, 2017.

Shortly after Deans Smolar and Silas assumed leadership of the College, it became necessary to look for a new location for the Trial Practice Institute as demand for spots in the Trial Practice Institute outstripped the physical space at Mercer. Deans Smolar and Silas secured an agreement to hold the 2019 Trial Practice Institute at the Roger Williams University School of Law in Bristol, Rhode Island. Roger Williams proved to be an enthusiastic partner for the NCDC Trial Practice Institute, and as a bonus, the Rhode Island summer temperatures are delightfully cooler than those in Macon. The College returns to Roger Williams for its 35th Anniversary Trial Practice Institute in Summer 2020.(xii)

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(i) Special thanks to NCDC Faculty Member Jodie English for her assistance, recollections, and contributions to this article. Countless Trial Practice Institute participants have benefitted from Jodie’s longstanding devotion to teaching trial practice skills to defenders in Houston, Macon, and now in Rhode Island.

(ii) The Trial Practice Institute has had attendees from Canada, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, the Republic of Georgia, and various other nations.

(iii) According to its website, the National Judicial College (originally called the National College of State Trial Judges) was founded in 1963. It is housed in its own 90,000 square foot facility at the University of Nevada. See https://www.judges.org/about/
https://www.unr.edu/around-campus/national-judicial college-building.

(iv) “Prosecutors Open National College,” New York Times, June 16, 1970 (describing a four-week summer program on the campus of the University of Houston for approximately 90 district attorneys from all over the United States).

(v) The National Judicial College and the National College of District Attorneys (now under the banner of the National District Attorneys Association) both have significant dedicated staff and training facilities. The National District Attorneys Association’s training facility is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice on the campus of the University of South Carolina. See the website of the National Advocacy Center at https://nac.catertrax.com/. We are grateful to the American College of Trial Lawyers for its generous support of the National Criminal Defense College since its inception.

(vi) The leaders of the former National College for Criminal Defense were also called its “Deans.” John Ackerman of Wyoming was the first Dean of NCCD with the late Melvin Lewis of the John Marshall Law School in Chicago serving as its Associate Dean.

(vii) Rosie Flanigan retired from the National Criminal Defense College after over thirty years of service. Bellamy Johnston has been with the College since 1994 and continues to serve as our Program Coordinator.

(viii) Jim Doherty passed away in 1998. A moving article on his life and work appeared in the Chicago Tribune on September 29, 1998 and can be read at this link: https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1998-09-29-9809290191-story.html.

(ix) After Dean Dantzler retired, the Deryl Dantzler Scholarship Fund was created in 2016 to honor her contributions to the National Criminal Defense College.

(x) The 2017 Report of the Ad Hoc Committee tasked by Chief Justice Reports to review the Criminal Justice Act, chaired by Judge Kathleen Cardone notes that “the Department of Justice’s expenditures on training and training facilities for prosecutors exceeds the entire budget of the [federal] Defender Services Office (DSO).” See Executive Summary of the 2017 Report of the Ad Hoc Committee to Review the Criminal Justice Act (the “Cardone Report”) at pages ix xx. The Cardone Report observes, “[a]s a result [of the training budget imbalance], [defenders] are behind the curve, especially in complex and quickly changing areas of practice such as electronic discovery.”

(xi) See In the Moment, A Nebraska Criminal Defense Blog by David Tarrell (May 15, 2008 entry), https://nelawyer.blogspot.com/2008/05/don-fiedler.html. xii In addition to the Trial Practice Institute, the National Criminal Defense College also conducts three-day workshops on specific trial skills at other times of the year and in various places.

“NCDC provided me with the opportunity to explore my trial advocacy skills, and in the end provided me with the confidence I did not have prior to the college. Having little prior experience in the courtroom, NCDC provided an excellent foundation for defending the accused.”