You were in Sierre Leone working as part of the defense team of military commander Alex Tamba Brima. How did that happen?
I found myself on a fellowship in Sierra Leone and was interested in transitional justice. I walked into the Special Court, and said, "I'm here for three months and I'm a third year law student." They asked, "Would you like to work on the prosecution or the defense?"
I had worked at a public defender office the summer before and felt very passionately about indigent criminal defense, defending people who couldn't afford their own lawyers. And here was an opportunity to be an advocate for someone who was accused -- and probably guilty of -- crimes on a very, very different scale. It seemed like a pretty remarkable opportunity.
When I got back to the United States people asked, "How can you defend a war criminal?" And the film in some ways is a response to that, why you would want to defend someone guilty of really terrible crimes but who deserves his day in court.
Why did you choose to plot the story the way you did - opening with the verdict rather than letting the trial unfold?
Francisco Bello, who was the editor and producer of the film, and I decided on that very early on - before Issa Sesay was convicted. From our perspective, there was no doubt there would be a conviction. Whether it was because the prosecution had an overwhelmingly strong case or whether the cards were stacked against him, everyone believed he'd be convicted. For us the real uncertainty in the trial was the sentencing. That was the moment the court really had an opportunity to look at the whole context of Sesay's life and his actions in the war and determine what might mitigate his sentence or make it longer.
Was there a reason why the trial was held in Sierra Leone rather than The Hague?
I think the Special Court was a response of the international community after the lessons learned from the tribunals of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. In many ways the Special Court was better than its predecessors which were held outside of the countries where the war crimes were committed. The International Tribunals of Yugoslavia and Rwanda did not have as vigorous outreach campaigns as the Special Court for Sierre Leone. And those tribunals are still going on, whereas the Special Court is about to finish its work.
How did the outreach program work?
The country is divided into 16 districts and there are two officers who work for the court in each of those districts constantly traveling through communities, holding screenings and having town hall meetings. Even though I don't think people were following the day to day of the trial, they absolutely knew who was being prosecuted and the fact that they were only prosecuting those who bore the greatest responsibility. Inasmuch as you can expect people who are putting their lives together in the aftermath of a terrible war to care about notions of justice, people did.
One question defense attorney Wayne Jordash posits is: Can you hold one person accountable for the crimes of many? Did you come to any conclusions?
People often ask if this is a film about the miscarriage of justice because so few people were tried and held accountable. It's not about a miscarriage of justice; it's about the nature of justice, that justice is always imperfect. Our expectations for these courts are just too high. I don't think peace in Sierra Leone would be more stable if 100 more people were prosecuted. If you are only prosecuting a small number, it is most important to get the people at the top. We need to go up the ranks and ask who's really responsible for making the decisions that issued the orders. Stopping it there -- that's the important message to send. The problem is how inconsistent the prosecutions are. Right now, it's seems the international community is only going after weak states or failed states, without asking tough questions about the complicity in war crimes of our own leaders.