Friday, May 6, 2011
DLA Piper Team Helps Guyana Modernize Its Courts
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
When DLA Piper litigation associate Nicole King visited her parents’ native Guyana eight years ago, the house she stayed in did not have hot running water.
The small South American country sandwiched between Venezuela and Suriname, she says, has come a long way since then.
King relates that she saw “computers, cell phones, and cars…everywhere” when she and 12 colleagues recently visited Guyana on a pro bono project to help the nation of some 750,000 residents adjust its legal practice and procedural rules to accommodate the types of crime and evidence these developments brought with them.
“It’s a lot of small drug crimes, small drug traffickers shipping out of the country…and the new crimes they’re starting to see are firearms related and money laundering,” King explains.
For one week at the end of March, 13 DLA Piper lawyers representing 10 offices in the U.S. and the U.K., spent a week Guyana’s capital city, Georgetown, training law enforcement, prosecutors and magistrate judges on trial management and procedure.
King was joined in Guyana by Kristen Abrams, Mitka Baker, Sheldon Krantz, J. Hess, and Peter Zeidenberg from Washington D.C; Marcia Augsburger from Sacramento; Angela Crawford from Tampa, Fla.; Robert Johnston from New York; Megan Kraai from Baltimore; Carolyn McNiven from San Francisco; Mark Nadeau from Phoenix, Ariz.; Robert Sherman from Boston; Terry Smith from Philadelphia; and Michael Lawlor from Great Britain.
The project was developed by New Perimeter, DLA Piper’s non-profit affiliate dedicated exclusively to international pro bono work, and resulted from a direct request from the government of Guyana as part of its Justice Sector Modernization Program, according to a release from the firm.
King says the goal of the trip was to provide Guayana’s magistrate judges and prosecutors with skills to help them address “new issues that are sort of creeping up into the justice system” as the country continues to develop, and “be cognizant of upcoming challenges like DNA, like various electronic crimes, and computer crimes, where they’re going to be encountering types of evidence they’ve never seen before.”
While in Georgetown, the DLA Piper team trained nearly all of the country’s magistrates on advanced trial management skills, anti-money laundering and asset forfeiture law, and international best practices in bail setting.
The attorneys also worked with police, prosecutors and senior investigators on presenting and cross-examining witnesses, introducing documents and physical evidence, establishing chain of custody for physical evidence and introducing confessions and witness identification evidence.
As the country, which is roughly the size of Idaho, is a former British colony, U.K. law is valid precedent, but the organization of the court system is basically the same as in America, King says.
One of the “biggest meaningful differences,” she relates, is that police officers serve as prosecutors for misdemeanor crimes. Since these officers are “sort of at a disadvantage” when they “go up against trained defense attorneys,” part of the training was intended to “sort of bridge that skill gap,” she says.
Another difference King notes is that “procedurally a lot of various hoops that you sometimes have to jump through” during trials, especially when it comes to the admission of evidence.
She says that a witness “has to go to the extreme” in describing evidence for it to be admissible, which “bogs down the process in terms of time and effort.”
For example, “if you want to introduce a photograph into evidence, you have to bring in the photographer to authenticate the photograph,” and “there can be a lot of very technical requirements placed on the prosecution to establish the authenticity of [the image],” King explains.
This particular situation was “something we were trying to help strategize around,” King says, and one suggestion was to have a photographer include a finger in the camera frame, to create a “unique identifier” for the image so that the prosecution can tell the judge “we were cognizant at the time we were going to have to use this as evidence,” to provide additional indicia of reliability.
“People have actually started using that,” King says, describing how on the last day the DLA Piper team was in Guyana, they encountered one of the training participants near the courthouse who said he had been at a crime scene the night before and had put his thumb in the photographs he had taken there.
King remarks that the program was a “pretty incredible thing to be a part of,” and that she “learned a lot about trial practice and strategy and evidence.” But the “best thing about this project was that I got to do something that is going to be a lasting contribution to Guyana, a lasting contribution that I made from something that I know how to do,” she says.
Although she was born in America, King says her “entire family” is Guyanese, and many of her relatives still reside there. “I think of myself as Guyanese and to be part of the diaspora that gives back is important to me,” she says.
King says she does not know if a return trip will be planned for the team, but “people certainly asked us to return, and several of us would like to go again.”
She goes on to describe the friendliness of the country’s people, as well as the relaxed culture and warmth of the equatorial environment.
The attorney mulls the possibility of endorsing her firm’s expansion with a Guyana office, but acknowledges that this is unlikely since “we’d never get anything done because we’d all be out of the office, poolside.”
In the alternative, King suggests that “Guyana would be the best place for Survivor to film” because the populated coastal region provides “modern resources” while much of the country’s interior is untouched rainforest.
“Maybe that’s my next contribution,” she says.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company