507.01 Federal Indigent Defense in Practice


The Sixth Amendment guarantees “the right of the accused to require the prosecution’s case to survive the crucible of meaningful adversarial testing.”  United States v. Cronic (1984).  Federal defenders, along with the more than 12,000 private ‘panel attorneys’ appointed under the Criminal Justice Act, represent the vast majority of individuals who are prosecuted in federal court. 

Representing indigent defendants as appointed counsel involves handling some of the most difficult cases in federal court. Being a skillful advocate in the role of a true underdog facing the power and limitless resources of the United States of America demands an approach to law practice that is relentless, a commitment to thinking outside the box, extensive knowledge of complex federal criminal laws and procedure, sharp research skills, and deep empathy for individuals who would not have a voice in the system without their counsel. 

This skills-based simulation course focuses on writing as an advocate for the accused and developing foundational practical skills and substantive legal knowledge needed to prepare a strong defense. The course focuses on the real cases of several indigent defendants convicted of federal crimes and is structured around preparing a direct appeal from the viewpoint of a solo practicing attorney appointed at the direct appeal stage. Each student will work on preparing one defendant’s case throughout the semester. By looking at cases of several defendants, we will be able to recognize common themes that play out over and over again in the lives of many indigent defendants, caused by poverty and systemic discrimination. Substantive areas of focus will include challenging the guilty plea and sentence, overcoming waivers and unpreserved errors, common Fourth Amendment concerns arising from police searches and seizures, the government’s bread and butter charges in indigent cases: guns and drugs, and the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual. The course will also necessarily consider the intersection of race, poverty, and systemic discrimination in our system of justice.

This course involves working with advanced federal criminal law topics.  It is strongly recommended that students have taken at least one upper-year course in federal criminal law, procedure, or practice.

Fall 2022

Course Number Course Credits Evaluation Method Instructor
Course Credits
Simulated Writing, Litigation
Reflective Writing
Practical exercises
Class participation
Sarah Powell
Sakai site: https://sakai.duke.edu/portal/site/LAW-507-01-F22
Email list: LAW-507-01-F22@sakai.duke.edu
Degree Requirements
Course Requirements - JD
Course Requirements - LLM
Course Requirements - Public Interest
Course Areas of Practice