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Courts and Crime

Case professor and law students celebrate verdict against Charles Taylor
The assistants in the Sierra Leone was crimes case also plan for an appeal

Valerie Brown
Law professor Michael Scharf and a team of Case Western Reserve University students assisted the prosecution team in building its case against former Liberian President Charles Taylor for ten years. Taylor was found guilty last week.
Courtesy of M.L. Schultze
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For Cleveland law professor Michael Scharf and his students, the conviction of the former president of Liberia on war crimes is a personal victory.  And it continues a strong connection between Northeast Ohio and some of the world's biggest international criminal cases.

Case professor and law students celebrate verdict against Charles Taylor

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Long, expensive and -- for Michael Scharf and his students -- worth it
For 10 years, Case Western Reserve University law professor Michael Scharf and his graduate students have been assisting prosecutors in the case against former Liberian President Charles Taylor.

And last month, a special international court in The Hague found Taylor guilty on 11 charges of “aiding and abetting” crimes committed by rebel groups in neighboring Sierra Leone. The convictions include terrorism, murder, rape, and conscripting child soldiers.

Precedent setting
Estimates for the cost of the prosecution range from $60 million to $200 million. But Scharf says the case set groundwork for future cases. 

“It’s going to become the case that people will be looking at year-after-year -after-year in every one of these trials," Scharf says. "If al-Bashir is ever brought to justice, the case that they will be focusing on for their legal precedence will be the Charles Taylor prosecution.”

Scharf is referring to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir , whom the International Criminal Court indicted in 2009, but who has yet to be caught.

The argument against head of state immunity
Scharf has been working with international war crimes tribunals since the mid-1990s, when he helped in Serbia and Croatia. He says what’s unique about the Taylor case is the precedent it set for trying heads of state.

“Just because you’re a leader, you’re not above it all," Scharf says. "Just because you don’t specifically order atrocities doesn’t mean you can benefit from them knowingly when these individuals are being encouraged by your actions. He enabled the neighboring warlords to commit these atrocities, and this case says that will stand no more.” 

Defining crimes
Throughout the trial -- and in the decade leading up to it — Case interns conducted  extensive research. Scharf says one legal memo provided support for the prosecution’s argument that Taylor did not have “head of state immunity” for war crimes tried in an international court.

The prosecution also established  legal definitions for crimes such as pillage, forced marriage and sexual slavery.

“These things had never before been tried in a court of law," Scharf says, "so from beginning to end [students] had to go find really obscure citations to treaties, and negotiating records, and statements of countries. It was not an easy case to prove.”

First since Nuremburg
Taylor is the first head of state to be convicted in an international court since the Nuremburg trials following World War II. Then, a military tribunal convicted Karl Doenitz — a Nazi admiral who succeeded Adolph Hitler in the days following Hitler’s suicide.)

More recently, former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was on trial for war crimes, but died in prison before the verdict. 

The trial portion alone of the Taylor case took three years, and Scharf says gathering evidence was difficult. The victims are spread across Sierra Leone and Liberia, and many did not want to talk about what happened to them.

Planning to counter an appeal
Helena Traner was one of 20 interns who spent a semester in either The Hague or in Sierra Leone researching and writing more than two dozen legal memos that prosecutors used in the case. Traner worked with chief prosecutor Brenda Hollis. 

“One of my tasks was also to help get ready for the appeal because we know Charles Taylor will be likely to appeal his conviction," Traner says. "So as part of that, I did a lot of reading and compiling [of] witness testimony to match some of what the charges were, and it really gave me a sense of the terrible atrocities these people suffered.”

Two former Case students were hired to the prosecution team after their internships.

Taylor is scheduled to be sentenced on May 30th

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