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Cal Western professor uses comics to teach law

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It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a ... lawyer?

Yep. Or more specifically, a lawyer masquerading as a superhero, bringing the concept of justice to a Latin American audience.

The idea was conceived in part by California Western School of Law Professor and Assistant Dean James Cooper, who believes cartoons and illustrations are a great way to present legal education.

"It's what (the Latin American audiences) want to see," Cooper said. "They're a TV generation; they're part of the Youtube generation.

"To use cartoons or animation to promote ideas is nothing new. There's a long lineage of using popular culture to promote new ideas."

Cooper gave a presentation on "Comics and the Law" last Thursday at the Comic-Con International convention in San Diego.

He showed how Proyecto ACCESO, a public-education group that he directs, has produced a series of public service announcements featuring crime-fighting lawyers for the governments of Chile, Bolivia and the United States.

One features the "Flame of Justice," a female superhero based on an actual Mexican-American attorney named Lilia Velasquez. Another showcases a band of caped crusaders called "Team Justice," again based on real-life lawyers.

"We're trying to expand the notion of what lawyers mean," Cooper said, who founded Proyecto ACCESO in 1998 with the late Jeanine Kerper, a California Western professor.

The videos typically feature hip-hop music and are tailored for each specific audience, adhering to each community's cultural ideals.

Cooper, a co-director of California Western's Center for Creative Problem Solving, said the legal establishment is beginning to recognize the benefit of using graphic arts to promote legal scholarship.

Two years ago, the Journal of Legal Education published a comic book-style law review, produced by Cooper, California Western colleague William Aceves and artists Alejandaro Gonzalez from Cuba and Pedro Egana Marshall from Chile.

The work represented a breakthrough for the movement and legitimized the use of animation in teaching legal skills.

Proyecto ACCESO also utilizes other visuals, including reality shows, coloring books for kids, puppets and DVDs. The group receives funding from the U.S. government as well as from Germany and Japan.

In addition to education, the group uses the different mediums to try to bring about reform and social change.

"Everybody wins with the rule of law," Cooper said. "The judicial system is one-third of democracy."

The "Flame of Justice" video, which was shown throughout Chile as part of the ministry of justice's public education campaign, was used to focus on the basic American judicial tenet of the presumption of innocence.

The message can be difficult to get across because it's a paradigm shift for Latin American countries, Cooper said.

"You're going from a situation of an inquisitory criminal justice system, where you're the object of an investigation with no civil human rights and no public defender, to one where you're a defendant. You're the subject in the process," he said.

Cooper said his group worked for more than a decade to bring a U.S.-style justice system to Chile, which it now features throughout the country.

Cooper said he's now trying to get the government to employ more technical aspects, like the use of DNA.

The group also produced a video commissioned by the U.S. government to promote intellectual property rights.

"Why is it important?" Cooper said. "Because billions of dollars are being lost to piracy."

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