Chief U.S. District Court Judge teaches criminal sentencing course at WFU School of Law

Wake Forest University School of Law students have a rare opportunity this semester to learn the ins and outs of criminal sentencing from a sitting judge.

In addition to serving as the Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, Judge Robert Conrad is teaching a course about criminal sentencing to nearly 20 third-year law students.

"This is a great time to be teaching and taking a sentencing course," Conrad said. "Sentencing law is going through a period of dramatic change. These students are studying it at just the right time."

The formal name of Conrad’s course is “Criminal Procedure Selected Topics.” A distinctive feature of the course is that the students read actual case files in addition to the published casebook in the course. They also travel to Charlotte, where Conrad’s chambers are located, to observe sentencing hearings and to talk with defense attorneys, prosecutors and probation officers. In addition, Conrad requires each student to play the role of an advocate in a simulated sentencing hearing.

Conrad’s class is a good balance of theoretical and practical instruction, according to third-year law student Leslie Wagner.

"Much like a traditional law school course, we have studied the leading cases on federal sentencing," she said. "However, we have also had the opportunity to observe sentencing hearings in Charlotte and participate in our own mock sentencing hearings, where we each advocate for a particular sentence. Judge Conrad has prepared us well for these mock hearings by giving us insight into the arguments that are particularly persuasive to a sentencing judge. As a law student interested in pursuing a career in criminal law, this class has been invaluable."

"It’s an exciting course, part of our ‘experiential learning’ initiatives for the third-year law students,” said Ron Wright, executive associate dean for academic affairs at the law school. “It also marks an important initiative in Charlotte, where we want to strengthen the opportunities and contacts available for our students. “

A Clemson University graduate, Conrad earned his JD at the University of Virginia Law School in 1983. He served as an assistant U.S. attorney from
1989 to 2001 and as the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina from 2001 until 2004.

In his role as a U.S. attorney, Conrad prosecuted cases of terrorism financing and campaign finance. During the 1996 election, Attorney General Janet Reno named Conrad as head of her campaign finance task force to look into fundraising improprieties. Conrad recommended that an independent counsel investigate Vice President Al Gore at the time. While serving as the head of the Advisory Committee on Terrorism Financing during the Bush Administration, Conrad helped prosecute supporters of the North Carolina Hezbollah terrorist cell. He was confirmed as a U.S. district judge in April 2005 and became Chief Judge of the district in 2006.