Saturday, March 24, 2012

Taylor Defense Wants Date for Judgment Changed; Prosecutors Disagree

Written by Alpha Sesay

Defense and Prosecution lawyers in the trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor are in disagreement over the date for the delivery of the judgment. The Defense wants to postpone the April 26 date of the verdict announcement, which was scheduled by the Special Court for Sierra Leone  judges less than one week ago.

On March 1, nearly one year after the evidence phase of the case closed, the judges issued a scheduling order confirming that the trial judgment in the former Liberian President's case will be delivered on April 26, 2012.

Five days later, on March 6, defense lawyers for Mr. Taylor filed an urgent motion requesting a change of the date for delivery of the judgment from April 26 to April 30.

Explaining the reasons for their request, defense lawyers stated in their motion that Taylor's lead defense counsel Courtenay Griffiths already "has prior professional engagements on the judgment date, which have been on the calendar since September 2011," and that April 26 will be the eve of Sierra Leone's independence celebrations and the delivery of the judgment on such a date therefore "appears to be ill-timed and poses potential security risks."

According to the defense motion, after the conclusion of proceedings in March 2011, service contracts for defense counsel were suspended and this compelled Mr. Griffiths to take up assignments in other jurisdictions. One such assignment now coincides with the date for the delivery of judgment in the Taylor trial.

"Lead counsel is scheduled to represent another client in a High Court matter on 25 and 26 April 2012. This hearing has been scheduled since September 2011. As counsel had already committed himself, it is now too late to change this date; it is also too late for counsel to find a suitable replacement due to the complexities of the case and obligations to the client," the defense motion states.

The motion further explains that Mr. Taylor "feels very strongly that Lead Counsel must be present to receive the verdict and to immediately provide legal advice and strategy with respect to whatever outcome may obtain."

Defense lawyers also argued in their motion that the judgment should not be made to coincide with Sierra Leone's independence celebrations as this will be in bad taste. Sierra Leone celebrates its 51st independence anniversary on April 27, 2012.

"These events are typically an emotive time for the country as it reflects on its past and celebrates its future. The delivery of the Taylor judgment the eve of the Independence Day would thus eclipse this historic festive occasion," defense lawyers argue.

According to Mr. Taylor's defense, the independence festivities "attract large, jubilant crowds through the country," and considering that the Taylor judgment will be an issue of intense debate in the country, the chances of rioting in the case of either a conviction or acquittal will be increased under such circumstances.

"The Defense submits that announcing the verdict at a time when the nation is in festive mood and the streets are already thronged with people poses a direct security threat and runs counter to the Court's responsibility to maintain peace."

Defense lawyers have therefore requested that the date of judgment be moved from April 26 to 30.

Prosecution lawyers have however objected to this request. In a response to the defense motion that was filed on March 7, 2012, the Prosecution has urged the judges to reject the defense request because "the Defense has failed to establish that the Accused would be prejudiced if the judgment in this case was delivered on 26 April 2012 as scheduled."

Prosecutors argue that if in fact the date for the delivery of judgment was moved from April 26, it will affect Mr. Taylor's right to a fair and expeditious trial. Prosecutors further argue that the Defense motion only talks about the absence of lead defense counsel and does not say anything about the presence or absence of other members of the defense team. Prosecutors say it is safe to assume therefore that in the absence of lead defense counsel, co-counsel, and the Principal Defender will be present in court with capacity to give advice to Taylor if the need arises.

As to the potential security risk that the Taylor verdict could pose while Sierra Leoneans are involved in independence festivities, the Prosecution response calls it "purely speculative and should be dismissed as such."

If, however, the judges decide to consider the defense request in view of Mr. Griffith's prior commitments on April 26, the Prosecution suggests that the judgment be delivered in the afternoon of April 27.

While both parties remain in disagreement on the date for the delivery of the judgment, the judges will consider the arguments presented by both parties and then determine whether to grant the defense request or to reject it and abide by its originally announced date of April 26, 2012.


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