Clinical Programs - Criminal Defense

Criminal Defense Trial Clinic

This course gives students the opportunity to engage in the criminal defense of indigent individuals charged with crimes in local courts in Tompkins County. The course has both a classroom component and a courtroom component.

“If you want to do criminal work, this was a good introduction into the localized nature of criminal practice and procedure.” - Anonymous student

What to Expect
Court/Case related activities

Students in the course represent clients in court before local judges. Each student works as a team, but has lead responsibility for their own clients.

Representation is limited to clients charged with misdemeanors or non-criminal violations.


  • Interview the clients
  • Conduct negotiations with the District Attorney’s Office
  • Appear on behalf of the client at all court proceedings.

“Court appearances and research was interesting and practical.” - Anonymous student

The courtroom component involves regular attendance at Ithaca City Court proceedings, including pre-trial conference sessions. Attendance at various Town Courts may be required (transportation is not required).

The criminal charges typically faced by clients include harassment, criminal mischief, criminal contempt, misdemeanor DWI, disorderly conduct, various drug offenses, assault and vehicle and traffic offenses (excluding traffic tickets).

During the semester students will be expected to:

  • Interview clients and witnesses
  • Prepare clients and witnesses for hearings or trial if required · Conduct plea-bargaining negotiations
  • Perform case research and fact investigation
  • Engage in motion and paper practice as appropriate.

The opportunity to conduct non-jury trials depends upon the individual case and the outcome of the plea-bargaining process. Most cases are resolved by plea negotiations prior to trial.

  • Students have the opportunity to observe and critique trials and pretrial hearings.
  • Students may also have the opportunity to conduct research related to active major felony cases.

Research cases in 2006 included:

  • A vehicular manslaughter case where students researched the issue of whether the facts would support a murder second charge and if the charge of manslaughter was rebutted by the facts.
  • A vehicle search and seizure case which revolved around a lack of probable cause to conduct a vehicle stop and to then search the vehicle.

Classroom Activities

The classroom component of the course involves discussion, lecture and courtroom simulation exercises.

Topics include:

  • Handling of a criminal case
  • Ethics of criminal representation
  • Case strategy and case management
  • Plea bargaining
  • Trial/hearing conduct including direct and cross-examinations.

Classroom activities are linked to case representation. Exercises and discussion provide mentoring, theoretical issues tied to criminal representation and practicum exercises to provide the foundations and skills to be applied by students in client representation.

“If you want to improve speaking skills, this gave you the opportunity to do that.”
- Anonymous student