'L.A. Law' at a War Tribunal: Clash of Legal Systems, Styles

Yankee-style justice rattles a hybrid, highbrow world court

There was another objection by the defense, one in a long series raised by Los Angeles lawyer Russell Hayman.

Judge Claude Jorda sighed loudly and peered over his wire-rimmed glasses at Mr. Hayman, who calmly complained about the casual way evidence was being introduced by the prosecution, not the way it was done in California.

Judge Jorda, a Frenchman, had had enough. "I think what separates us is a conceptual problem," he said. "We should not constantly bring about a clash of different legal systems. It was never said in the rules of the tribunal ... that we will apply the procedures that Mr. Hayman is used to using in Los Angeles."

This is not L.A. Hayman is defending Croatian Gen. Tihomir Blaskic, the highest- ranking military officer to face charges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

Hayman is the latest American attorney at the tribunal who brings with him a legal culture made famous by television programs like "L.A. Law" and real-life trials like that of O.J. Simpson.

It is a legal style quickly falling out of favor at the tribunal here in The Hague, historically a center for mediation and diplomacy.

A different system

The tribunal is a legal system unto itself, a blend of British common law and European civil law. Lawyers and judges have come here from more than a dozen countries.

Early on, there were concerns that the overwhelming number of American prosecutors on loan to the tribunal would tilt the scales of justice toward something resembling the kind of law practiced in American courts. But a dispute between the United Nations and the United States over an administrative tax levied on borrowed personnel sent most of the US prosecutors home.

Now the fear is that the growing number of American defense attorneys will tilt the balance.

Some glaring differences have emerged between the way law is practiced in American courtrooms and the courtroom of the tribunal.

Here, there is no rule against hearsay - so witnesses can testify about secondhand information. There is no "double jeopardy": If a defendant is found not guilty, the prosecutor can come back five minutes later with new evidence and request a new trial.

Most important to lawyers, the rules of evidence and procedure - the guidelines that govern how a trial will be run - is a thin, double-spaced document that leaves room for discussion.

Hayman insists he is not trying to aggravate the court, just trying to define the legal requirements.

Bring on the Texans

If it's L.A. law practiced in the trial of General Blaskic, it is jurisprudence with a Texas flair in the trial of the Celebici Four. Four men - three Bosnian Muslims and one Bosnian Croat - are on trial for alleged atrocities committed at the Celebici prison camp in Bosnia.

Since March, when the trial began, a dozen defense attorneys have floated in and out of the courtroom. Three of the current crop are from Houston, veterans of pizza-delivery-boy murder cases and hit-men trials.

The Texans - Cynthia White McMurrey, Tom Moran, and John Ackerman - are also fans of the "object early and often" school, complaining in a Texas drawl, "These things just flat aren't reliable, judge."

The group is also renowned for personal attacks on prosecution witnesses - and even on prosecutors. When an American prosecutor, Theresa McHenry, argued for inclusion of a piece of evidence, she reminded the trio of judges of their own rule book. "I believe in this tribunal; your honors can admit any evidence if you find it reliable."

That brought the red-faced, bearded John Ackerman to his feet. "I think I have no choice but to rise and say that I'm pained to hear what Ms. McHenry has to say about this tribunal, especially considering that she comes from the same legal system that I do. Yes, of course. We could do a lot of things more expediently. This case would move along a lot faster if the defendants were not permitted to have counsel."

Ackerman warmed to his subject. "I have a great love for justice! And I know this court is here to do justice, not to do the expedient thing. And I just want to state for the record that I am offended by that kind of remark coming from a fellow American."

In the US, such a performance would bring a stern warning from the bench, perhaps even a fine. Presiding Judge Adolphus Karibi-Whyte, from Nigeria, issued the tribunal equivalent of Rodney King's "can't we all just get along" speech, saying, "Frankly, I expect counsel generally to be professional and add less trouble to us instead of increasing what we already have."

The tribunal does have its share of troubles. Only one courtroom handles these two trials, plus all the other legal proceedings under way. There aren't enough translators. And of the 76 people indicted for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, only nine are in custody.

But a rare UN budget boost may allow for a second courtroom - and a second arena for these US lawyers to do what they do best.

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