Law students, faculty and alumni play major role in historic trial

Over the past 10 years, Case Western Reserve law professors, students and alumni have played several key roles in the historic war crimes case against Liberia’s former president, Charles Taylor.

Recently, the Special Court for Sierra Leone convicted Taylor on 11 counts of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity in Liberia’s neighboring Sierra Leone. It was the first time in history that an international tribunal has convicted a head of state. Taylor will be sentenced May 30; prosecutors just filed a written submission suggesting an 80-year sentence.

Shortly after his appointment in 2002, the Special Court for Sierra Leone’s Founding Chief Prosecutor David Crane reached out to Case Western Reserve’s War Crimes Research Office, directed by Professor Michael Scharf, and the Public International Law and Policy Group, a non-governmental organization Scharf co-founded, for assistance on complicated legal issues facing that tribunal.

Since then, Scharf, Visiting Associate Professor Carol Fox and Adjunct Professors Christopher Rassi and Christopher McLaughlin, supported by a dozen students each year, have provided 32 lengthy research memos to the chief prosecutor and his successors.

A Case Western Reserve law memo provided the research for the Taylor prosecution to argue that head of state immunity did not apply to the Special Court for Sierra Leone despite the fact that it was a hybrid tribunal created jointly by Sierra Leone and the United Nations rather than a traditional international court. Scharf said this legal work laid the foundation for the prosecution to obtain the indictment of Taylor while he was still a sitting head of state in 2003.

“The Case memos dealt with just about every issue in the trial, from the authority of the Sierra Leone Tribunal to prosecute leaders in Liberia, to the legal contours of aiding and abetting, to the definitions of crimes against humanity, terrorism, pillage and war crimes,” Scharf said.

Ultimately, the Special Court for Sierra Leone convicted Taylor of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity and war crimes for providing weapons to rebel groups in neighboring Sierra Leone. The court found that he knew those rebel groups were engaging in mass atrocities in return for blood diamonds. “Taylor was convicted of being enabler in chief — a theory our work helped support,” Scharf said.

Case Western Reserve’s contributions to the tribunal were so significant that in 2005, Crane nominated Scharf, the Public International Law and Policy Group and the Case Western Reserve-based war crimes program for the Nobel Peace Prize. Crane received an honorary doctorate from Case Western Reserve, and the current chief prosecutor of the tribunal, Brenda Hollis, will receive an honorary doctorate from the university at commencement on May 20.

Ten years ago, Case Western Reserve provided the very first legal intern, Lesley Murray, now a human rights lawyer, to the Special Court for Sierra Leone’s office in Freetown. Twenty other CWRU interns followed in Murray’s footsteps — more than from any other law school in the world.

In 2007, the Case Western Reserve law faculty established an international tribunal externship program, so that students could earn a full semester’s worth of credit for interning at the tribunal’s offices in Freetown and The Hague.

At the high point of the Taylor trial in 2010, when model Naomi Campbell testified about receiving blood diamonds from the defendant, Case Western Reserve intern Jacqueline Green sat at the prosecution table just behind the witness.

Two of Case Western Reserve’s interns for the tribunal, Ruth Mary Hackler (LAW ’05) and Nathan Quick (LAW ’09), were hired after graduation to be part of the 10-person prosecution team that tried Taylor. Quick recently went on to be legal adviser to the judges of the Cambodia Tribunal, while Hackler plans to stay with the Taylor prosecution team until they wrap up in the fall.

Case Western Reserve law school’s War Crimes Research Office is supported by an annual grant from the Open Society Institute.

The War Crimes Research Office currently provides research assistance to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, where alum Christopher Rassi (LAW ’02) serves as a legal adviser to the prosecutor; to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, where alum Andres Perez (LAW ’05) serves as legal adviser to the judges; and to the Cambodia Genocide Tribunal, as well as to several regional courts prosecuting Somali pirates.