An Endless Trial

We started yet another trial this week, and it’s looking like it will continue into the first week of April.  Not our longest trial ever, but fairly lengthy for a state case.  But at least it’ll be over before the trial of Raj Rajaratnam, which also began this week, and which is expected to last through the beginning of May.

But these are nothing compared to the trial of Charles Taylor, former head of Liberia.  This is the same guy who ran for election with the campaign slogan (not making this up): “He killed my ma / He killed my pa /But I will vote for him.”  Probably a thinly-veiled threat that those who didn’t vote for him would get the same treatment.

Taylor first came to prominence in 1980, when he took part in the coup led by Samuel Doe.  Whose government he soon ripped off in a massive embezzlement scheme.  He fled to the U.S., got picked up and thrown in prison, and made a daring prison escape before he could be extradited in 1985.  He high-tailed it to Libya and the protection of Muammar Gaddaffi, and went through some terrorist training camps.

With funding from Gaddaffi, he organized a rebellion against the Liberian government in 1989.  The civil war would rage for seven years, utterly destroying the country.  Slaughter, fear and lawlessness made Liberia the classic “failed state.”  There was no government, only destruction.  (A State Department official we knew at the time said it was no good trying to reach anyone in charge there.  “The phone’s just going to ring and ring, because there’s probably bullets flying through the office and they’re hiding under their desks.”)  The word “horrifying” doesn’t begin to describe what was going on throughout the ’90s there.

In 1997, Liberians elected him president in the vain hopes that this would avoid any more civil war.  But within two years, it was raging again.

But none of this is what he got in trouble for.

Apparently, Liberia wasn’t exciting enough, so he got involved in the horrors over in Sierra Leone.   During his own civil war, Taylor took advantage of Sierra Leone’s instability to found a rebel group (funded with Sierra Leone diamonds, and manned with conscripted children) to launch a civil war in Sierra Leone.  Because the government there was so corrupt, it had no real resources, and there was pretty much no economy.  So they couldn’t really fight back.  Still, they wound up having their own brutal civil war throughout the 90s.  A large Nigerian-led UN force finally intervened and restored peace, finally disarming the rebels in 2004.

Meanwhile, the Special Court for Sierra Leone managed to file an indictment against Charles Taylor for war crimes and crimes against humanity, based on what he did in Sierra Leone.

He was indicted in 2003.

His trial just ended today.

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Even if you take into account the fact that he hid out in Nigeria until finally being arraigned in 2006, and the fact that the trial proceedings themselves didn’t really begin until 2007, we’re still talking a four-year trial.  That’s a long time to hear a case.

And the trial isn’t really technically over, anyway.  Just the evidentiary part is over.  The judges are going to take the next several months before rendering their verdict.

This thing ain’t ever going to end.

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Whether he’s guilty or not — and we haven’t seen the actual evidence that was admitted — this kind of delay does not serve justice.  If he’s innocent they can’t prove him guilty, then this excessively long process amounts to an unjust incarceration.  And if he’s guilty, then the process only serves to delay justice to the people of Sierra Leone, and the vast separation between the act and the punishment severely dilutes any purpose such punishment is expected to achieve.  (And it’s not like the European court is going to execute him — he’d just serve his time in a British prison.)

These are a couple of the policies underlying the U.S. guarantee to a speedy trial under the Sixth Amendment.  “Justice delayed is justice denied” may be a worn-out phrase, but it’s no less true for being trite.  Nobody’s interests are served by an extended proceeding like this.  Forget the fact that many of the delays were caused by Taylor himself being a buffoon, boycotting the court, and the like.  The vast majority of the delay was systemic, and that’s just wrong.

The fact that the SCSL indicted him presumes that they had enough evidence to convict him at trial.  One does not indict a case without some certainty of victory in court (unless one is either a blithering idiot or a scoundrel).  There is little reason to suspect that the fine folks at the SCSL are either blithering idiots or scoundrels.  So one must presume they were ready to prosecute Taylor for war crimes back in 2003.  There is no reason on Earth why they couldn’t have presented their case promptly and thoroughly when the trial began in earnest back in 2007.  The prosecution’s case took two years.  Then there was a lengthy delay.  Then Taylor’s case lasted a full year.  His own testimony lasted half a year.

We’re sorry, but no witness needs six months to testify about anything.  No subject is so complex or voluminous that it takes six months to spell it out.  That’s just too long.

Taylor wrapped up his case in November.  Then nothing happened for a few months until closing arguments began in February.  Why anyone involved in this case needed three months to prepare closings, why they weren’t being prepared throughout the trial and ready to go a few days or a week later is astounding.

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Well, as of today, both sides are finished.  There’s nothing left now but to await the judges’ verdict.  We’re sure they’ll get around to it one of these days.

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