Seeking Justice

International prosecutor settles in Haywood
By Jessi Stone Assistant editor | Nov 03, 2013
Photo by: Jessi Stone David Crane enjoys the view from his mountaintop home in Haywood County.

David Michael Crane has spent more than 30 years serving his country and the international community in unimaginable circumstances, and while he considers much of his career to be accidentally consequential, settling down in Waynesville was no accident.

“I was humbled and privileged to be chosen to seek justice for the murder, rape and brutality of 1.2 million human beings in West Africa,” he said during an interview at his mountaintop Haywood home. “After all this we were looking for a peaceful place, we fell in love with it here and intended to come back to God’s country after living kind of on the edge for so many years.”

Landmark trial concludes

Crane served as the chief prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone and signed the original indictment against former Liberian President Charles Taylor 10 years ago as well as the leadership of the three warring factions. The 11-year armed conflict resulted in the destruction of 1.2 million civilians and the displacement of millions.

The real-life “Blood Diamond” story in Sierra Leone was brought to a final conclusion Sept. 26 when the Appellate Chamber of the Special Court for Sierra Leone upheld Taylor’s 50-year prison sentence for aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Crane was there in his robes and in the courtroom itself at The Hague, Netherlands to witness the final verdict on a trial that he spent three years prosecuting. Of the 13 people he indicted for the crimes, nine were convicted as charged. The case represents the first time a sitting head of state in Africa has been convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“I was there and looked (Taylor) dead in the eye when the verdict was upheld,” Crane said. “I now have a sense of satisfaction for the people of Sierra Leone… it just proves that the rule of law is more powerful than the rule of the gun.”


International prosecutor

Crane was a senior executive for the Department of Defense in Washington, D.C., when he received a phone call in the summer of 2001 that would change his life. It was the White House asking if he would be interested in being the U.S. nominee for the position of chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.  If appointed he would be the first American to be a chief prosecutor of an international war crimes tribunal since Justice Robert Jackson at Nuremberg in 1945.

“I believed it was a joke,” he said. “I thought ‘they’re not going to pick an American,’ but I threw my hat in the ring anyway.”

A few weeks later the World Trade Center was attacked, and Crane’s attention shifted to more pressing issues right here at home. But he was still nominated and went through an extensive interview process with the UN Security Council that lasted six months. He then received a call from a United Nations legal advisor in July 2002 telling him that the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan had appointed him Chief Prosecutor and the announcement would be made to the world within the hour. Crane accepted the position and retired from the federal government after 30 years to join the United Nations.

Sierra Leone conflict

By August, he was in West Africa with his legal team putting together the case. His mission was to prosecute those who bore the greatest responsibility for war crimes during the conflict. What he would find in Sierra Leone would be beyond belief.

“Ninety percent of the country was destroyed. There was no running water, no electricity — there were still bodies in the streets,” he said. “Seven months after I arrived, we conducted a 55-minute arrest operation across the region without one shot being fired.” Those arrested were Taylor and the leaders of the three warring fractions in Sierra Leone.

Crane spent a lot of time in Sierra Leone walking the countryside listening to people’s stories. He heard firsthand accounts of the horrific events that occurred during the conflict. The things that happened to them were much worse than the scenes from the 2006 movie “Blood Diamond,” Crane said.

“These people (rebels) were the law for 10 years. Some things are just too horrific to talk about,” he said. “I’ve never seen a horror story like Sierra Leone.”

The indictments were handed down in March 2003. While Crane said there was no great secret to prosecuting on the international level, the real challenge was conveying the brutality and horror to the tribunal.

“I told the tribunal that they would have to believe the unbelievable because there was nothing in any language to describe what happened. They would have to listen to the victims’ stories of horror one at a time,” he said.

One story was told by Crane’s first witness — a young child soldier who told of how he was forcibly recruited by the Revolutionary United Front and had the letters R.U.F. carved into his chest. The branding was just a piece of the terror he endured.

Life after Sierra Leone

Now that the Sierra Leone case is over, Crane is using the lessons learned to lay the framework for a similar case — only this time it is centered on the Syria conflict. He and a team of international law experts as part of the Syrian Accountability Project are building a case against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for war crimes.

“Once a political decision is made by the international community, we’ll have a cornerstone package put together for a Syrian prosecutor or an international criminal court to build trail ready case,” he said.

What makes this effort unique is that usually case planning doesn’t begin until after a war is over. But laying this groundwork now will make the process much quicker. Crane said it also allowed his team of experts to build a strong conflict map narrative of what has taken place in Syria. The group also has draft indictments against Asaad and his top henchmen. But Crane said he wouldn’t be involved in the future prosecution.

“I think a Syrian prosecutor should prosecute under Syrian law for Syrian crimes,” he said. “It can’t be seen as a western effort.”

Crane is working on a book, “Strike Terror No More,” based on his experiences that he detailed in four handwritten journals while in West Africa.

“It’s about how 24 nations from around the world came together to seek justice for a ruined people,” he said. “It’s about how the good guys won in the end.”

Since returning from Sierra Leone in 2005, Crane has been teaching at Syracuse University College of Law, which is where he graduated in 1980.  He teaches national security law, international criminal law, and international humanitarian law subject areas he practiced in for decades. He flies out on Tuesdays and returns on Fridays.

The one thing he tries to teach his students is something he heard time and time again in Sierra Leone. While holding a town hall meeting with those affected by the conflict, a child soldier stood up and confessed to killing people and said he was sorry.

“Then a young women stood up with child in her arms… she said ‘seek justice’ and so that’s what I tell my students,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of law you find yourself in — just seek justice.”