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Scheduling Judgment Day: Ending the Charles Taylor Trial

JURIST Columnist Charles C. Jalloh of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law says that the date set for the verdict in the Charles Taylor case by the Special Court for Sierra Leone is inappropriate given the fact that it coincides with an important date in Sierra Leone...

On February 23, 2012, I wrote an article in which I raised concerns about the delay in issuing judgment in the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor. A week later, the trial chamber hearing the Taylor case issued a scheduling order fixing April 26, 2012 as the date for the long awaited verdict.

While Trial Chamber II should be lauded for finally informing the accused, the people of Sierra Leone and the international community about when the SCSL's most important trial will end, at least at the trial stage, the date that the judges selected for the public announcement of their verdict is odd for several reasons. Most importantly, it coincides with another important occasion for the government and people of Sierra Leone which should not have been overlooked.

Sierra Leone, one of four former British colonies in West Africa, secured political autonomy from the UK on April 27, 1961. This means that Trial Chamber II chose the eve of the country's fifty-first independence anniversary when it announced April 26, 2012 would be judgment day in the case Prosecutor v. Charles Ghankay Taylor.

Even though the Taylor trial has been ongoing since June 4, 2007 and Sierra Leoneans and the accused must all be anxious to hear its outcome, at this stage, it would be hard to credibly argue that a one or two week addition to the case calendar would necessarily prejudice Taylor's right to a fair and expeditious trial as guaranteed by Article 17 of the Statute of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

In any case, in the event that there might have been concern about the accused's fundamental right to be tried without undue delay, it can be noted that his defense team filed a motion [PDF] on March 6, 2012 asking the judges to move the judgment delivery date from April 26, 2012 to May 1, 2012. So, while the Chamber denied [PDF] that application on March 9, 2012, whatever right he may have enjoyed to have his case resolved earlier was voluntarily waived and therefore not in issue.

The problem is that, whether a mistake or deliberate choice, delivering judgment on April 26, 2012 seems inappropriate, at least on a symbolic level. For one thing, along with the accused and Sierra Leoneans, everyone would learn of the crucial trial outcome in the biggest case to have been tried before the SCSL. Besides being the first trial of a former African president for allegedly overseeing the commission of serious international crimes in a neighboring African state, the accused also happens to be the only non-Sierra Leonean to have been tried by the SCSL. More significantly, although the evidence reveals a more complex picture of internal and external causal factors, Taylor is widely perceived as the person responsible for fomenting the Sierra Leone conflict.

His case therefore commands a considerable following in Sierra Leone, neighboring Liberia from where Taylor hails, Africa, and indeed, in various other parts of the world. This includes here in the US where the brutal Sierra Leone conflict became associated with "blood diamonds," as popularized by a 2006 Hollywood movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly and Djimon Hounsou. There is also the link to Taylor's son, Charles Emmanuel (aka Chuckie Taylor), who was the first person to be tried in the US for acts of torture committed abroad under the Torture Victims Protection Act based on the principle of universal jurisdiction. He was convicted by a Miami jury on October 30, 2008 and later sentenced to 97 years in prison.

As with any other criminal trial, there are only two possible verdicts in the Taylor case: "guilty" or "not guilty." The defendant does not have a right to determine the delivery date of the judgment in his case at the SCSL, any more than any other defendant in another national or international criminal court does.

That said, it should be obvious to anyone familiar with the history of the Sierra Leone conflict and Taylor's alleged role in it that celebrations would likely take place throughout the affected country on that day and the day afterwards if in fact the accused is found "guilty." If Taylor is convicted, then, as his defense team unsuccessfully argued in their early March motion seeking a shift of the judgment day, the timing would appear to be "in bad taste." For it gives "the impression that Taylor is being offered to the people of Sierra Leone as part of the independence celebrations." That would be unseemly, even if it were an honest and innocent mistake on the part of the Chamber.

Similarly, according to the Taylor defense team, the timing of the judgment seems equally "ill conceived" if he is found "not guilty." In their view, if the Chamber grants an acquittal, it would probably inflame the minds of the many Sierra Leoneans who would already have gathered in large groups in public spaces to celebrate their national day. Such celebrations usually take place starting the eve of Independence Day and continue well into the next day and sometimes even longer. The judges rejected that argument too, finding it "entirely speculative" and therefore "without merit."

It is hard to know whether the Chamber actually considered the impact their selected verdict date might have amongst the public in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Whether or not they did, as the defense counsel suggested in their motion, delivering trial judgment, at a time when Sierra Leoneans would be in a "festive mood" seems inappropriate because any of the two possible outcomes of the case might well "eclipse [that] historic festive tradition."

Thus, the date chosen is evidently not as sensitive to the Sierra Leonean context as the Chamber should have been. Although it may be stretching it to say, as the defense argued, that the announcement of the verdict in such circumstances may have increased the risk of rioting and perhaps might even give rise to other security concerns. But that argument assumes that Sierra Leoneans and Liberians, including Taylor supporters, are not able to understand and respect the Chamber's decision. Yet, surely, it would be relevant to all concerned that whatever verdict is rendered would have been issued after a fair and public trial in which all the necessary guarantees of due process were accorded to the accused, including of course, the right to present his side of the story with the assistance of competent counsel.

What is even more troubling about the April 26, 2012 judgment day is the perception that it might leave of the tribunal's processes in its last and most high profile case. In a part of the world where conspiracy theories are not uncommon, the delivery of judgment the day before Sierra Leone's Independence Day celebrations could, depending on the verdict given, cause and fuel unhelpful and unnecessary speculation which might affect its long term legitimacy. This is particularly so in Liberia (but also in Sierra Leone) where Taylor supporters would likely argue that any negative outcome to the case was predetermined. That, of course, would be ill informed and preposterous. Yet, it is precisely that characteristic which might give such a position greater traction among lay pro-Taylor Liberians and Sierra Leoneans.

In sum, while it would have been preferable for the Trial Chamber II judges to select a different date for the delivery of the Taylor judgment, the good news is that we at least now have a date that allows us to forecast when the SCSL will complete its work after this last case on its docket concludes. Based on the experience with the other trials, where appeals were disposed of in about six months, that is likely to be by the end of this year.

Charles C. Jalloh is an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. A monthly columnist for JURIST on issues of international criminal law, his experience includes service as a legal adviser in the Special Court for Sierra Leone, including as court-appointed interim counsel to former Liberian president Charles Taylor. He can be reached via email at jallohc@gmail.com.

Suggested citation: Charles C. Jalloh, Scheduling Judgment Day: Ending the Charles Taylor Trial, JURIST - Forum, Mar. 29, 2012, http://jurist.org/forum/2012/03/charles-jalloh-scsl-judgment.php.

This article was prepared for publication by JURIST's academic commentary editorial staff. Please direct any questions to them at academiccommentary@jurist.org

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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