Training Day 4: Juvenile Justice in Liberia, Opening Statements, Jury Selection, and Cross Examinations

In the post below, NACDL Indigent Defense Counsel John Gross describes the fourth day of the training workshop.

19 June 2014

The guest house where we are staying sits next to a school and during our first few mornings in Kakata we heard children singing, but on Thursday morning they were drowned out by the sound of water as the rain persisted. For the first time since our arrival in Liberia, we awoke to grey skies. At times during the night the rain became so strong that it sounded like a roaring engine and was loud enough to wake some of us up.

Our training schedule for Thursday was perhaps the most challenging of the week, both for the trainers and for the participants. We planned to cover opening statements, the presentation of evidence, cross examination and jury selection. We could have easily spent an entire day on any one of those subjects and still have felt as though we needed more time to cover it adequately. Success or failure would depend largely on the willingness of the Liberians to focus on these complex topics.

The day before we had asked the Liberians to prepare an opening statement based on the hypothetical Martin had designed (involving a defendant who was charged with murder but claimed he was acting in self-defense). Our plan was to get the Liberians on their feet early in the day, but before we could get to opening statements an issue came up about the representation of juveniles in Liberia. Liberia recently passed a Juvenile Justice Act, which established Juvenile Courts similar to those we have in the United States. The act also guarantees juveniles the right to representation, but does not indicate how that representation should be provided. As a stop gap measure, Juvenile Court Judges have been telling parents who have children charged in Juvenile Court to write to the Office of the Public Defender and request representation. Despite the fact that they have enormous caseloads and no juvenile justice training, the public defenders have been doing their best to represent children in Juvenile Court.

As we got ready to hear the Liberian’s opening statements, the Liberians pointed out to us that they didn’t actually give their opening statement at the start of trial. While Liberian criminal procedure is remarkably similar to our own, one striking difference is that the defense gives an “opening” statement not at the start of the case following the prosecutions opening statement, but rather at the conclusion of the prosecution’s case in chief.

After listening to several excellent opening statements and giving our feedback to the attorneys, a number of the participants asked if they could practice opening statements they were working on for actual cases. This was when we were introduced to another excellent Liberian expression: “Six days for the rogue, one day for the master.” The public defender that used the expression had a case where his client was accused of assaulting the complainant, but claimed that the injuries the complainant sustained were because he jumped out of a window when the client came home and discovered that the complainant was having an affair with his wife. The sentiment that the expression tries to capture is that even though someone may be able to hide their transgressions most of the time, eventually they will come to light.

We worked on opening statements throughout the morning and then took our lunch break. For the first time during the week, we were served “fufu” at lunch. Rice is a very big part of the Liberian diet, but like other countries in West Africa, Liberians also eat fufu: boiled cassava that is then pounded into a past which is used to scoop stewed meats or vegetables.

When we came back after lunch we decided that it was time for the Liberians to assume the role of trainers themselves. We had been giving them constructive criticism throughout the week and simultaneously explaining to them what went into a good critique since one of our goals was to “train the trainers.” We asked one of the public defenders to give their opening argument and told the rest of the participants to be ready to critique their colleague’s opening. For the first time during the week all four of us sat on the sidelines while the Liberians ran their own training session. The constructive criticism offered was very productive for the Liberians and very gratifying for us.

The next topic on the agenda was jury selection and Lisa Wayne led the discussion. The jury pool in most counties in Liberia is made up of jurors who have little to no formal education and who are typically unemployed. Jurors are actually paid approximately $250 U.S. dollars if they are selected, which may not seem like a lot to us, but is a significant amount of money in Liberia. People think of jury service as a job and not as a civic duty. This creates a perverse incentive: the people who are most in need of money, and therefore the most likely to be susceptible to bribery, do everything they can to be selected as jurors. This combined with the fact that most of the jurors have only a high school education and a very limited understanding of the legal system and jury selection becomes incredibly challenging.

The next topic on our agenda was cross examination and Martin Sabelli did an outstanding job taking the Liberians through basic cross-examination techniques. Even though it was the fourth day of training, even though it was getting close to 6:00 p.m. and our day had started at 9:00 a.m., the Liberians were determined to learn everything they could about cross examination. This was the moment that we had all traveled so far and worked so hard to achieve. In rapid fire succession the Liberians took turns cross-examining Martin using techniques that an hour ago they knew nothing about. We all sensed that the skills we were trying to teach had begun to take root.

That evening we once again gathered in the common room of the guest house for dinner, a bittersweet occasion since we all knew it was our last night in Liberia. We had a memorable dinner of barbequed chicken, rice, greens, cassava and avocados with a spoonful of “peppa” on the side. After arriving in Liberia it didn’t take us long to realize that Liberians like their food spicy and that no meal is complete without “peppa,” a condiment made of roasted and finely chopped green chilies.

We were about to head off to our rooms when we were joined by several of the Liberian public defenders. Then we did what friends do: we bought each other drinks, told stories, told jokes, told each other we were right about some things, wrong about others and forgot about the fact that we needed to get up early the next day.

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