The Special Court for Sierra Leone Jumps Three Sharks and a Turtle

by Kevin Jon Heller

That’s my basic reaction to the release of the full judgment in the Taylor trial, which checks in at an utterly absurd 2,499 pages.  (The judgment is downloadable, assuming you have a very fancy computer, here.)  2,499 pages is clearly a new record for a judgment of an international tribunal, especially in a case with one defendant.  By way of comparison: the IMT judgment, which concerned 24 defendants, is little more than 100 pages, while all twelve NMT judgments, which concerned 185 defendants, run a little more than 3,000 pages.

I will have more to say after I’ve had time to read (some of) the judgment in detail, but I have one concern worth mentioning now: namely, my worry that the length of the judgment will have a direct impact on the length of Taylor’s sentence — an impact unrelated to the facts found by the Trial Chamber, the nature of the crimes of Taylor was convicted, and the mode of participation on which his convictions are based (aiding and abetting and planning, both forms of accessorial liability).  My initial and somewhat impressionistic sense is that Taylor deserves a sentence between 30 and 35 years, given (1) that the SCSL’s longest sentences to date have been 50 and 52 years, and (2) that the defendants who received those sentences were convicted as principals, not accessories.  That assessment puts me squarely in the middle of the experts I’ve informally polled about what they think Taylor’s sentence should be — some have gone as high as 40, others have gone as low as 25.  All agree, however, that the 80-year sentence requested by the prosecution would be completely disproportionate in light of the SCSL’s previous sentences.  It is nevertheless difficult to imagine the Trial Chamber imposing such a “lenient” sentence on a defendant whose judgment — for him alone — is almost 2,500 pages long.  The sheer mass of the judgment would seem to require a longer sentence, even if that sentence would be inconsistent with the facts and law found by the Trial Chamber.  I hope I’m wrong about that; I hope the judges will be able to separate the amount of work that has gone into the judgment from their objective assessment of Taylor’s culpability.  But I fear the former will bleed into the latter.  After all, judges are not machines.

We’ll see.

http://opiniojuris.org/2012/05/22/the-special-court-for-sierra-leone-jumps-three-sharks-and-a-turtle/

4 Responses

  1. I thought 600 pages of Lubanga were ridiculous enough, but 2500 pages is sheer madness. No wonder it takes that long time to issue a judgment for an international tribunal, legal graphomania seems to be the creeping problem.

  2. Great post, Kevin.  Informationally, in 2011 the ICTR’s Butare Six judgment – six as in six defendants – clocked in at 1500 pages. Per capita, more concise than Taylor or Lubanga. But wading through it still amounts to a turgid slog.

    Who is going to read these judgments? Is the only thing people are going to read an unofficial summary? Or a news report based on the unofficial summary? What, then, of the authoritative text? 
     
    In the Butare Six judgment, many pages largely are given over to determinations of witness credibility, testimonial reliability, and whether defects in the indictment have been cured. On the one hand, comprehensive; but on the other hand, anesthetizing. Amid this clutter, the narrative force of the witness’ actual words are lost or relegated to a parenthetical in a footnote. These relentlessly long judgments further distance international criminal law from the public.

    Perhaps international criminal lawyers should rethink the current trajectory of judgment as text/authority. As a starting point: why have these judgments become so long? Is the length necessary? Legitimating? Or are there better ways to deliver the final word? This last question seems an interesting one for both rhetoricians and practitioners.

  3. At the very least, the IT tribunal staff should compress the file size. Can we get a searchable text only file, please? This file is absolutely unmanageable.
    I am not sure about the percentage of people on this planet who have a sufficiently good Internet connection to download the file and then scroll through it on their fancy computers.
    Such a long judgment in a non-searchable monster-file is not just inconvenient for academics, but you rightly mention the challenges such a long judgment poses for the defense…Not to mention journalists and all others who might be interested in the legal reasoning.

  4. Great points, all, with which I am in complete agreement.

    Mark,

    Yeah, I thought Butare was long!  I think your point about the readership is spot on — my guess is that 99% of the public, academic and otherwise, will simply read the summary, which is not supposed to be a substitute for the judgment itself.  And that is not acceptable.

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