Today, Appeals Chamber judges at the Special Court for Sierra Leone issued a decision granting an appeal by Charles Taylor’s defense team. The Appeals Chamber judges reversed the decision of the Trial Chamber to reject the defense final brief and also ordered the Trial Chamber to schedule a date and time for Mr. Taylor’s defense to make their closing argument.
Mr. Taylor’s trial, which has seen dramatic scenarios unfold recently, was supposed to have been completed in early February after closing arguments by all parties. However, the closing arguments did not take place as Mr. Taylor’s defense lawyers made a boycott after the Trial Chamber judges rejected the defense final brief on the grounds that it had been filed 20 days after the due date of January 14, 2011. Mr. Taylor’s lead defense counsel, Courtenay Griffiths, said then that if the defense final brief was not accepted, he saw no role for himself and his client in the proceedings. Mr. Griffiths eventually walked out of court and, together with Mr. Taylor, stayed away from the Prosecution’s closing arguments. The Trial Chamber later granted the defense leave to appeal the decision rejecting their final brief. Defense lawyers eventually filed an appeal before Appeals Chamber judges of the Special Court.
The Appeals Chamber of the Court, made up of five judges, today issued a decision on the matter. In the decision, the Appeals Chamber judges discussed the decision in the light of Mr. Taylor’s fair trial rights as an accused as well as drawing a line between the actions of his counsel and his own approval of those actions.
“The right to be heard at the conclusion of the trial is the right of the accused, not his Counsel…it is the discretion of the accused that must be exercised, not his Counsel,” Appeals Chamber judges said in the decision.
The Appeals Chamber judges said that if it were not for the fundamental rights of the accused, the Trial Chamber would have been right to conclude that the defense final brief was filed out of time and would not be accepted.
The Appeals Chamber judges noted that “had the fundamental rights of the accused not been at issue…the Trial Chamber would have committed no error in concluding that the defense had forfeited its opportunity to file the final brief as ordered and had no right to file at a latter date of its own choosing.”
“However, when…the forfeiture signifies a waiver of a fundamental right of the accused, there is an obligation on the Court to assure itself that the accused understands that the consequences of the actions and representations of Counsel could be construed to be a waiver of the accused’s right to be heard and to defend at the conclusion of the trial,” they added.
According to the Appeals Chamber judges, the Trial Chamber judges acted unreasonably when they concluded that the silence of Mr. Taylor meant he agreed with his lawyer’s actions and that he understood that by such silence, he was waiving a fundamental right to present his defense.
The Trial Chamber judges erred when they “did not establish that there was a knowing, intelligent and voluntary waiver by the accused.”
The Appeals Chamber judges noted that right through the process, the accused was silent and such silence should not have been construed as giving his consent to what his lawyer did.
“In the face of the silence of the accused…the conclusion that the accused had waived his right to have his written final argument considered by the court was an error of fact which, if uncorrected, could occasion a miscarriage of justice,” the Appeals Chamber said.
“To rule otherwise would be to disadvantage the uninformed accused for the actions of his Counsel, which would be unfair, particularly as there are other means by which the Trial Chamber can sanction Counsel without affecting the accused’s fundamental rights.”
The Appeals Chamber judges concluded that “the accused’s final trial brief is ordered accepted…and the Trial Chamber is instructed to expeditiously set a date to hear the defense closing argument and rebuttal arguments of the Prosecution and the Defense.”
The Trial Chamber will communicate with both prosecution and defense on when the court will reconvene to hear the defense closing arguments as well as rebuttal arguments from both parties.