Campus News - September 4, 2001

Law group champions Bergman

By Laurie Mellas-Ramirez

UNM Professor of Law Barbara Bergman is profiled in the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) July 2001 publication, The Champion.

Bergman is the 2000 recipient of the group’s most prestigious honor – the Robert C. Heeney Award. Past winners include Barry Scheck (1996), director of the Innocence Project, Judy Clarke (1994), a federal defender who worked on the Ted Kaczynski and Susan Smith cases, and local attorney Nancy Hollander (1987), who recently represented Wen Ho Lee.

A professional bar association founded in 1958 with more than 10,000 members, the NACDL is the preeminent organization in the United States advancing the mission of criminal defense lawyers to ensure justice and due process.

“To receive an award like this from such an impressive group is very special,” said Bergman, who has been with the UNM School of Law 14 years teaching courses in evidence-trial practice, criminal procedure and children’s law.

“Barbara is well deserving of the Heeney Award. She is an outstanding teacher and scholar and superb criminal defense attorney,” said UNM School of Law Dean Robert Desiderio.

Bergman serves on the NACDL executive committee as treasurer and the NACDL Federal Grand Jury Reform Report commission.

She recently returned from a year of leave in Oklahoma working on the defense team in the state prosecution of Terry Nichols. Nichols received a life sentence without parole in federal court for his alleged role in the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.

The state of Oklahoma continues to seek the death penalty for Nichols.

“I am still working part-time on the case,” Bergman said. “The new District Attorney for Oklahoma County plans to make a decision about whether to continue with the case by the end of the month.”

A graduate of Stanford School of Law, Bergman has worked for the Washington, D.C. public defender service, as associate counsel for President Jimmy Carter, for a labor law firm and as an adjunct faculty member at Catholic University law school.
UNM recruited her at a law school “meat market” in Chicago, Bergman told The Champion, adding, “I liked the folks from New Mexico best. They were not pretentious. I liked their attitude.”

Criminal defense law can be a lonely practice, Bergman said. NACDL offers a network designed to help alleviate that sense of isolation and a pathway to assistance and advice for defense attorneys.

“Criminal defense lawyers may feel unappreciated. Many people don’t really understand why you do what you do,” Bergman said. “We protect people’s rights. When people find that they need our services they say ‘I can’t believe things are like this.’ Those are the people who start to appreciate the Bill of Rights and how it protects all of us everyday.”

Bergman served as co-chair of the NACDL Amicus Committee for five years. The Committee oversees the writing and filing of “friends of the court” briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court as well as other appellate courts around the country. “A friend of the court” is usually an organization or group which has an interest in, but is not party to, a legal case.

Her amicus work is well recognized and may have put her over the top for the Heeney Award, she said. “The committee had never been organized so as to file a brief in every U.S. Supreme Court criminal case. I thought it was important to have input, if possible, on decisions that may impact so many other cases around the country.”

“NACDL is taking on the tough issues, such as the death penalty, police misconduct, and grand jury abuses…they all come back to how unjust the criminal ‘justice’ system really is,” said Bergman in the article.

Bergman’s NACDL activities coupled with research and writing keeps her on the cutting edge of law.

She and Nancy Hollander coauthor the Everytrial Criminal Defense Resource Book, 1993, updated annually. The two have also published eight volumes of Wharton’s Criminal Evidence. The books discuss general evidence rules used most often in criminal cases along with the results of a 50 state survey of how each state handles particular evidence issues. “As far as we can tell, no one has pulled together a 50 state compilation quite like this,” Bergman notes. “Writing the books enriches my teaching. It gives me a broad overview about what’s happening in the nation.”

Bergman’s local contributions include providing New Mexico judges with a criminal law update at the annual Judicial Conclave.
A popular professor, she provides students with current research tips and the chance to publish portions of their papers in her books. She truly enjoys preparing the next generation of defenders.

“Criminal defense lawyers are really wonderful people. Most do it because they believe so strongly in the Bill of Rights and recognize that everyone deserves a vigorous defense,” she said.

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