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The LL.M. in Trial Advocacy was co-founded by California Western Professors Mario Conte and Justin Brooks. Conte and Brooks teach classes in the program, oversee the curriculum, facilitate federal defender's office clinical placement for each student, and provide personal guidance to prepare students for a career in federal criminal defense.

Our dedicated faculty, all experienced criminal defense litigators, are committed to providing students with the skills and knowledge needed to practice in federal court. By limiting enrollment to 10 to 15 students each fall, our faculty are able to provide a great deal of individual attention, instruction, and clinical supervision to each student, while preparing students to maximize their employment opportunities after graduation.

Meet the Co-Founders

Professor Mario Conte, Co-Founder

LL.M. in Trial Advocacy

Mario Conte received his B.A. from St. Michael's College, his M.S. from New York Medical College, and his J.D. from the University of Connecticut. He clerked for a federal district court judge in Connecticut for one year before joining Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc. as a trial attorney. He later became the chief trial attorney and then served as FDSI's executive director from 1991-2004.

Conte has taught at trial advocacy programs throughout the United States for over 15 years. He joined California Western in 2005 as a full-time faculty member teaching in both the J.D. and LL.M. programs.

Professor Justin Brooks, Co-Founder and Director

LL.M. in Trial Advocacy, Executive Director, Institute for Criminal Defense Advocacy and Project Director, California Innocence Project

Justin Brooks received a B.B.A. from Temple University, his J.D. from American University, and an LL.M. from Georgetown University Law Center. After law school, he practiced as a criminal defense attorney in Washington, D.C., and has continued to practice throughout his teaching career. Brooks taught at Georgetown Law Center and was the assistant director of Georgetown’s Street Law Corrections Clinic. He then spent six years teaching at Thomas Cooley Law School, where he taught Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Corrections Law, and Law and Literature, and he ran a clinical program in which students worked with him on death penalty cases.

Brooks has been a visiting professor at Interamerican University of Puerto Rico Law School and a visiting scholar at the University of Sheffield in England. He has published extensively on the death penalty, corrections and sentencing law, and other criminal law issues.

Program Faculty

Elizabeth M. Barros is a Supervisory Attorney/ Trial Team Leader at the Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc. She received her J.D. from UCLA School of Law with a Concentration in Critical Race Studies. Ms. Barros joined Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc. in 2003. She was initially drawn to the office because of her passion to defend immigrants and the criminally accused. The high number of criminal-immigration matters handled by Federal Defenders allows her to pursue her interests in both areas of the law. In 2010, she was recognized by the San Diego Daily Transcript through a peer-nomination process as one of the best young attorneys in San Diego County.

She oversees a team of seven trial attorneys, assisting them in all aspects of their practice. She also maintains an active trial and appellate caseload, and has handled cases ranging from criminal-immigration matters, drug and firearms-related offenses, racketeering, bank robbery, fraud, rape, child pornography, assault to international extradition.

Kasha K. Castillo is a Supervisory Attorney/Trial Team Leader at the Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc. She received her B.A. from the University of Portland and her J.D. from the University of San Diego School of Law and joined Federal Defenders in 2000. Prior to coming to the office, she worked in San Diego for a private firm doing criminal defense work at both the state and federal court levels. She has been intensely involved in training and mentoring new attorneys and has lectured on a variety of topics, ranging from substantive criminal law to trial skills and practice.

Kasha became a Supervisory Attorney/Trial Team Leader in 2004. She oversees a team of seven trial attorneys, assisting them in all aspects of their district court practice. Additionally, she continues to maintain a significant district court caseload that permits her to litigate a wide array of cases through the motions and trial stages. Kasha joined the LL.M. in Trial Advocacy faculty in 2009.

Kurt David Hermansen received his B.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles in political science and his J.D. from Loyola Law School of Los Angeles where he served on the Law Review as the Chief Note and Comment Editor and authored a published law review comment. He dedicated five years to helping his clients and honing his trial skills as a trial attorney at the nationally renowned Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc. (FDSDI). Before joining FDSDI, he worked for five years as a research attorney for the federal district court and two years for the state court in San Diego. 

Professor Hermansen is certified as a Specialist in Criminal Law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization. He has his own law office dedicated criminal defense in state and federal trial and appellate courts. He is responsible for over a dozen published opinions, and has argued numerous times before state and federal appellate courts. He has also argued before the California Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court. In addition to being recognized as a criminal law Super Lawyer every year since 2008, he is actively involved in federal, state, and local criminal defense organizations dedicated to criminal justice. To learn more about Professor Hermansen's practice, go to his website here.

Alexander Simpson is the Associate Director of the California Innocence Project and a faculty member at California Western School of Law’s LL.M. in Trial Advocacy Specializing in Federal Criminal Law. He has worked at the California Innocence Project since 2001, and has taught at California Western since 2004. In his work with the California Innocence Project, Mr. Simpson has been successful in exonerating ten wrongfully convicted clients and has received a number of awards, including the Postconviction Lawyer of the Year from the Criminal Defense Bar Association of San Diego in 2006, and the Young Attorney Award from the San Diego Daily Transcript in 2008.

He has co-authored two law review articles "Find the Cost of Freedom: The Struggle to Compensate the Innocent for Wrongful Incarceration and the Strange Legal Odyssey of Timothy Atkins," 49 San Diego Law Review 3 (2012), and "Blood Sugar Sex Magik: A Review of Postconviction DNA Testing Statutes and Legislative Recommendations," 59 Drake Law Review 799 (2011). Simpson was also a panelist at the 2011 Innocence Network Conference, addressing the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and its application to state inmates seeking relief in federal courts.