Professor Michael P. Scharf: No Chaos in This Courtroom!

After the conclusion of the Saddam Hussein trial, which was perhaps the messiest trial in legal history, I was invited by Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, to make a presentation to his staff about the best ways an international criminal court can maintain control of a war crimes trial in the face of a defendant or defense counsel who seeks to disrupt the proceedings. I subsequently was invited to speak about this important issue to the judges and prosecutors of the Rwanda Tribunal and Cambodia Tribunal. The text of my presentation is available on the ICC’s website: and has subsequently been published as: Michael P. Scharf, Chaos in the Courtroom: Controlling Disruptive Defendants and Contumacious Counsel in War Crimes Trials, 39 CASE WESTERN RESERVE JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL LAW 155-170 (2007).

Because of the political context and widespread publicity, former leaders on trial such as Charles Taylor, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, and Vojislav Seselj, are more likely than ordinary defendants to perceive that they do not stand a chance of obtaining an acquittal by playing by the rules. Instead, such individuals will often attempt to derail the proceedings, hoping for a negotiated solution such as a pardon or amnesty. They may try to hijack the trial, hoping to transform themselves through their political diatribes into heroic martyrs in the eyes of their followers. And at the same time, they may seek to discredit the tribunal, hoping to provoke the judges into inappropriately harsh responses which will make the process appear patently unfair. For this reason, major war crimes trials are often perceived as extremely messy or worse, completely out of control. When the Charles Taylor trial began last summer, there were indications that it would follow that pattern, as Taylor made inflammatory speeches, fired his lawyer, and sought to represent himself at the trial’s first session.

As Robert Jackson, the Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg trial, observed sixty years ago, war crimes trials, whether before international tribunals or domestic courts, seek to establish a credible historic record of abuses and elevate the rule of law over the force of might, thereby facilitating the restoration of peace and the transition to democracy. While tolerating dissent is a healthy manifestation of a democratic government, a courtroom is not an arena in which dissension, particularly of a disruptive nature, may supplant, or even take precedence over, the task of administering justice. Unlike other forms of acceptable political expression, a disruptive defendant or defense lawyer who interferes with the “grandeur of court procedure” (as Hannah Arendt once described the judicial process) threatens the proper administration of criminal justice in several fundamental ways. First, disruptive conduct renders it more difficult for the defendant and any co-defendants to obtain a fair trial. Second, it hampers the court’s ability to facilitate the testimony of victims and other witnesses. And third, it undermines the public’s confidence in and respect for the legal process.

With this in mind, the Special Court for Sierra Leone wisely held in Prosecutor v. Norman (2005) that the defendant’s right to employ disruptive tactics which seek to discredit the judicial process must give way to the tribunal’s obligation to protect “the integrity of the proceedings” and “to ensure that the administration of justice is not brought into disrepute.” Following the recipe outlined in my presentation/article, the Special Court for Sierra Leone has taken appropriate actions to make sure that the Charles Taylor trial avoids the missteps of the messy war crimes trials of the past. For example, the Tribunal has required that Taylor be represented by counsel, rather than allow him to use self-representation to turn the trial into a circus. And it has provided Taylor and his counsel detailed warnings of the incremental and calibrated Judicial responses they can expect to encounter if they engage in disruptive conduct.

Based on my impressions from watching the live feed of the Taylor trial at it appears that the Tribunal has succeeded. Defendant Charles Taylor is behaving himself quite admirably in the courtroom, and at the same time is taking a constructive part in his own defense. He is seen constantly writing and often passing sticky notes to his lawyer, Courtenay Griffiths, who uses them during cross-examination. Taylor stands respectfully when the judges enter the courtroom, and has done nothing remotely disruptive – though his very presence is of course intimidating to witnesses who fear for their lives and are under the heaviest security imaginable. The press made a big deal that Taylor blew a kiss to his daughter sitting in the public gallery viewing to the trial on the first day, and he occasionally stares people down in the public gallery, but for the most part he seems to be quietly paying attention to what’s going on in the court.

Taylor’s new legal team has been doing an impressive job. British Barrister Courtenay Griffiths is quite tough on the witness, he grandstands from time to time, he tries to induce the witnesses into making exculpatory statements about his client, and he does his best to generate inconsistencies in their stories — basically he’s doing exactly what an outstanding defense attorney should be doing, which in turn bumps up the credibility of the entire process. The Taylor trial is animated – but within the ground rules of the court. This is a far cry from the Milosevic, Seselj and Saddam Trials, where the defendants and their counsel regularly disparaged the judges, interrupted witness testimony with outbursts, turned cross-examination into political diatribes, and staged frequent walk-outs, hunger strikes, and boycotts. It remains to be seen whether things will continue to go so well, but for now it does appear that the SCSL has learned from the lessons of the past and is setting a good precedent for the future.

Michael Scharf is Professor of Law and Director of the Frederick K. Cox International Law Center at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland, Ohio (USA).


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