Originally created 05/17/99

Courses provide practice



COLUMBIA -- The prosecutors know Sonny Jones is a serial killer, but as in real life, it will take skill and cunning equal to Mr. Jones' to prove it to a jury.

In the advanced course for prosecutors at the new National Advocacy Center, 42 students worked a full week recently to put together a case against the fictitious Mr. Jones of Metro. Between the study and practice work on Mr. Jones, the prosecutors also participated in lectures and demonstrations to increase their skills and knowledge, and therefore confidence, in the courtroom.

One year after the national prosecutors' school opened in Columbia, 2,500 state prosecutors from across the country have completed the weeklong courses, said director Tom Charron, former Cobb County, Ga., district attorney who prosecuted criminal cases for 21 years.

"This is the Quantico for prosecutors," Mr. Charron said, referring to the prestigious FBI academy in Quantico, Va., for law enforcement officers.

Never have prosecutors had such a resource, said Mr. Charron and Augusta District Attorney Danny Craig, who has volunteered to teach three sessions so far.

Georgia prosecutors, like those in most other states, have annual meetings with workshops, but they've never had such an advanced learning environment, Mr. Craig said.

Offered are a basic course for beginners, for prosecutors with less than two years of experience; a course for those with three to six years; the advanced course for those with six or more years of experience; and a weeklong session focused solely on cross-examination of witnesses. The course mixes hands-on work with lectures and demonstrations.

The courses are so popular that Mr. Charron has twice as many applications as openings. The school pays for everything -- from travel, lodging and supplies to meals, regardless of from how far or near the applicants come. The school on the University of South Carolina campus is a stately $26 million structure with 264 guest rooms. On one side, state prosecutors attend classes and courtroom sessions; on the other side of the building, federal prosecutors do the same.

Mr. Craig has volunteered to teach, which can be a hard job when facing some prosecutors with as much as or more experience than he, Mr. Craig said. Among the estimated 600 volunteer staff members are some of the country's best-known prosecutors, such as Bob Diekle, who prosecuted serial killer Ted Bundy in Florida.

Assistant District Attorney Nancy Johnson of Augusta, who attended a recent advanced class, was thrilled to find one of her heroes, Phyllis B. Gardner of Memphis, Tenn., among the instructors. Ms. Gardner was the prosecutor whose work led the U.S. Supreme Court to allow a victim's family and friends to tell a death penalty jury about the victim.

"It was just quality everything. I enjoyed it a lot," Ms. Johnson said. She says she learned the most from the cross-examination session of her class and would like to attend the weeklong session that focuses on just that aspect of courtroom work.

Ms. Johnson got to practice cross-examination. Her job in the fictitious Mr. Jones' trial for seven murders was to cross-examine a schoolteacher called by the defense to testify.

As is true in real life, Ms. Johnson knew little about the witness beforehand, she said. Ms. Johnson assumed the woman had taught Mr. Jones in school, but the witness was actually an acquaintance who knew Mr. Jones as an adult. Ms. Johnson's classwork helped her think on her feet and attack the witness' testimony by bringing out that all the teacher knew about Mr. Jones was what the man had told her, Ms. Johnson said.

John Tierney, a chief prosecutor in Minneapolis, lectured one afternoon on the topic of cross-examination, reminding the students that jurors are much like they were at the moment -- probably thinking about what to order for dinner or the quality of sand during the last beach vacation.

The secret to successful cross-examination, he stressed, was the "See Dick, see Jane" method of asking simple questions. "It's totally alien to us as trained lawyers," Mr. Tierney said. But short questions keep witnesses in line and within control, he said.

Don't ask that "one-too-many question," he said. Don't think about TV lawyer Perry Mason's ability every week to get the murderer to confess on the witness stand, he said.

In Ms. Johnson's course, actors came in to play the various witnesses, including Mr. Jones, and afterward the prosecutors critiqued their work. In the beginners' class, a whole trial is held and the prosecutors not only go through a critique but take home a copy of the videotaped trial, Mr. Craig said.

The courses have been crafted carefully, Mr. Charron said. "If they weren't, we would never get beyond people just telling war stories.

"(But) it's not somebody just reading out of a book," he said.

Sandy Hodson covers courts for The Augusta Chronicle. She may be reached at (706) 823-3226 or shodson@augustachronicle.com.