United States v. Teller – a New Plea Bargaining Role Play on Domestic Terrorism, Hate Crimes, and Managing Principal-Agent Tensions

By Sam W. Straus and Robert C. Bordone

United States v. Teller, a newly released negotiation role play case by Sam W. Straus and Robert C. Bordone of the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program (HNMCP), explores the challenges of negotiating plea bargains in the face of intense principal-agent tensions that pose ethical challenges. The case involves domestic terrorism and hate crime charges.  Although the fact pattern is fictional, it draws loosely on actual events in U.S. history, including the Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building in 1995 and the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013.

The case requires four participants, two in the role of attorney and two in the role of clients. Max Teller, a 27-year-old member of a motorcycle gang known for its ties to a white supremacist organization, is the defendant in the case and has been charged with domestic terrorism and hate crimes. Teller is represented by a public defender, assigned to Teller’s case, who feels conflicted about representing someone associated with a domestic hate-based organization. The prosecution is represented by the U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona (a client for purposes of this simulation) and the assistant U.S. Attorney. The prosecution must determine how to proceed with this case and consider the implications this will have for their professional mandate, their ethical obligations, and their careers. This engaging exercise in managing principal-agent tensions provides a challenging opportunity to negotiate both behind and across the table.

The case is designed as a two-stage negotiation of a plea bargain. The first part of the case takes place before the prosecution and the defense meet, with each agent – the Assistant U.S. Attorney and the Public Defender – meeting independently to interview their principal – the U.S. Attorney and defendant Max Teller, respectively – to determine the principal’s interests and objectives. The Assistant U.S. Attorney and the Public Defender meet subsequently to negotiate the terms of a potential plea bargain.

Because of the complexity of the issues and the background knowledge required, role-play participants should plan to invest at least 1 to 1.5 hours before class to prepare for the negotiation. The principal-agent interviews and the negotiation between the prosecution and defense should take place within a 1.5-hour time block, followed by a 30 to 60 minute facilitated review of participants’ experiences.

“The case is ideal for instructors who want to expose their students to the challenges of reconciling their own viewpoints and feelings with the duties they have to the court and the fair administration of justice,” says HNMCP Director Robert Bordone.  Instructors can use the case in a variety of ways and in many classes, including negotiation, criminal justice and procedure, and legal profession. Designed for participants with an intermediate level of negotiation training and some law background, it provides an introduction to interviewing, counseling, and representing clients. It is accompanied by an extensive teaching note to help those new to the case design debriefs that will ensure a rich learning experience.

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