The Magazine of South Carolina

Training Ground for Trial Advocates

The National Advocacy Center in Columbia


National Advocacy Center entrance at night

Inside the media center

A class in session

Guest quarters

Jim Dedman of the NCDA and Dick De Haan of the NDAA

Article by Daniel E. Harmon/Photos by Michael Seeley

When Americans watched prosecutors Christopher Darden and Marcia Clark at work in the 1995 O.J. Simpson criminal trial, many may have lost some of their Hollywood-inspired notions about courtroom drama. Here was not the stereotypical antagonist of Perry Mason, sour and sarcastic, middle-aged and white and male, hellbent on locking somebody up for a long, long time. Here was a team of highly trained professionals patiently navigating through a morass of legal fine points for months on end, sorting it out with opposing counsel and bench. The lawyers at either table clearly weren’t a big, happy family, but they seemed to have much in common. Each had a job to do, and the fundamental way they did it wasn’t all that different.

Just as defense lawyers have an obligation on behalf of the accused, prosecutors have an obligation on behalf of the public. Both sides use the same time-tested tools: the facts and the law. Their legal training is grueling, diverse . . . and ongoing.

That’s where the National Advocacy Center (NAC) in Columbia comes in. Defenders look to professional organizations like the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and the Association of Federal Defense Attorneys for advanced, practical training programs. Meanwhile, prosecutors across the nation flock to the South Carolina capital for brief, intensive courses designed to make them more effective legal representatives—literally, courtroom "advocates"—of society.

The center is set on the University of South Carolina campus (and in fact is owned by USC, which has a 25-year lease agreement with the federal government). The NAC is operated jointly by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA). Prosecutors at all levels—local, state and federal—enroll in courses focusing on specific types of cases (violent crime, property crime, juvenile court, white collar crime, drugs, sexual assault, DUI, computer crime, environmental violations, investigations employing DNA testing, etc.) and criminal proceedings (working with a grand jury, hearings and motions, appeals, etc.). It’s the only national legal training facility created specifically for prosecutors.

The double-wing complex is divided into a "federal side" and a "state/local" side, explains Richard L. De Haan, program support manager for the NDAA. Two federal training organizations, the National Bankruptcy Training Institute and the Office of Legal Education, occupy the federal wing. The opposite wing provides training programs for state and local prosecutors and is run by the NDAA. Tom Charron, director of education for the NDAA, was instrumental in bringing that part of the training facility here.

Many of the NDAA courses are taught by instructors from the National College of District Attorneys (NCDA, affiliated with the USC law school) and the American Prosecutors Research Institute. Teachers from the former address general trial advocacy training issues; those from the latter focus on specialized training.

Since opening in April 1998, the NAC has been training some 12,000 federal and 3,000 state/local prosecutors and staff workers annually.

The NAC offers excellent lodging onsite for enrollees. In terms of size, it’s Columbia’s second-largest "hotel" (although its rooms are available only to NAC students and staff). "It’s a conference center married to a hotel," De Haan observes.

So busy is the center throughout the year that the Columbia Trolley Service runs regular routes by it and makes the NAC its "evening hub." In two short years, the facility has provided the greater Columbia economy with an important economic shot in the arm.

How did Columbia land the NAC project? Largely through the efforts of Sen. Fritz Hollings, who went to bat for the South Carolina capital when the DOJ and the NDAA shaped plans to centralize training efforts. The DOJ’s Office of Legal Education relocated here from Washington, DC; the National College of District Attorneys from Houston, TX.

The 262,000-square-foot complex was designed by a national architectural firm, HNTB Corporation, working with the Columbia firm of Watson Tate Architects. "The goal of the center’s design," says Tom Cloud, HNTB senior project manager, "was to re-establish the historic fabric of the University of South Carolina campus, which was founded in 1802. The building’s scale, level of detail and formal layout were all driven by this objective."

The architects, Cloud notes, were especially challenged by the need for "integrating state-of-the-art courtroom technology into the revivalist classical building. The project represents the current trend of respecting the past while making provisions for today’s highest levels of technology."

In addition to five lecture halls of varying sizes, the NAC contains no fewer than 10 high-tech courtrooms in which prosecutors hone their techniques and skills before live judges and juries. It’s a unique treasure for the nearby USC law school, whose students can argue appeals against professional prosecutors under the scrutiny of veteran federal judges.

The NAC is an unprecedented training facility design, says Bill Wiseman, president of Southern Management Group (SMG) in Columbia, construction manager for the $32-million project. "There’s nothing like it in existence." Adds Brian Blatt, marketing director of SMG, "Our services are instrumental in bringing a project in on time and under budget, as was the NAC."

Besides lectures and mock trials, the NAC offers hands-on computer training in hardware and software used by district attorneys’ offices. A fully equipped TV production studio is on the premises. Via the university’s cable network, enrollees can view lectures from their guest rooms, if necessary.

The 265-room "hotel" for visiting students and volunteer faculty generally is booked solid four nights each week. Courses may last 2–12 days. For every 250–300 applicants for a course, about 50 can be accepted, De Haan says.

A primary consideration in selecting the participants for each class is geographic dispersal, he adds. "You rarely will find two people from the same jurisdiction in one class."

The fact that it’s a national undertaking is evident as you walk along the hallways. Artwork portraying government and court buildings from different states is displayed along the hallways.

Prosecutors come from 50 states and Puerto Rico—occasionally from abroad. James Dedman, director of academics for the National College of District Attorneys, says four war crimes prosecutors from The Hague have gone through training here. "Because they work closely with American prosecutors, they wanted to come here and observe our system."

Guests invariably are impressed not only by the instructional facilities but by the amenities, which include a work-out room, small library and dining services. "Almost everybody who comes here leaves with a positive impression of the City of Columbia and the University of South Carolina," says De Haan.

Dedman, a former prosecutor, wishes training of this nature had been available when he was trying cases. "I came along a generation too early to take advantage of this kind of training. As a prosecutor, I made every mistake in the book. The things that are taught here would have been of tremendous help to me."

As Columbians learn of the work of the NAC, increasing numbers—especially retirees—are volunteering for "jury duty" so they can get a close-up look at some of America’s best trial lawyers in courtroom scenarios. Jury volunteers serve half a day and are treated to lunch.

Does equipping prosecutors with greater trial skills bode ill for defendants? No, assuming the accused have competent counsel. The objective of the National Advocacy Center isn’t to stack the cards in the prosecution’s favor, Dedman points out, but rather to ensure that justice is done. "When I was trying cases, I felt bad if the opposing lawyer did a poor job. If I sent a person to prison, I wanted to know it was because he was guilty, not because I was a better lawyer. I wanted to be able to go home at night and talk to my children about what I had done at work, to go to sleep with a clear conscience."

But with evermore complex laws and advances in courtoom technology, continuing education for prosecutors is imperative. The purpose of the NAC, De Haan says, is "to develop the best advocates possible for America’s courts."


* Southern Management Group, Columbia

* Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, LLP, Columbia

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