Baltimore Sun
December 5, 2000


Where Death Penalty Is Not Taken Lightly


By Eric Weinberger

THE HAGUE -- In the dog days of August, things are slow everywhere in Europe. And on the last Tuesday of the month, only six people showed up in Courtoom 3 for the resumption of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, where five Bosnian Serbs were in the dock on charges stemming from atrocities committed in the summer of 1992 in the Trnopolje, Omarska and Keraterm camps.

The day's featured witness was a Muslim bricklayer known as Witness "AE": 53 years old, married with three children and living that summer of 1992 in a village in the Prijedor corridor of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The prosecutor, an American, led him through a series of questions in which he explained how the war came to his part of the country and how his village was subsequently "cleansed" by the Serbs.

Then began for him a nightmarish summer in different detention "camps" where he and his fellow prisoners were never properly housed or fed or given sufficient water or facilities for washing.

Worst of all were the beatings. Led by the prosecutor, Witness AE's testimony began to center around Zoran Zigic, the lowest ranked of the five men in the dock. He seemed to be some sort of alleged roving torturer given the freedom of the camps to behave at will.

AE himself allegedly had been beaten several times by Mr. Zigic and knew him as part of a group that had been accused of beating other Bosnian Muslims, some of whom later died.

After cross-examination by Mr. Zigic's lawyer from Belgrade, the American prosecutor was given the floor again.

This is when he asked AE if he could see the man he knew as Mr. Zigic anywhere in the courtroom.

After some commotion, the presiding judge took over and botched the job.

A man who, as the prosecutor later pointed out, when asked to identify his tormentor, had clearly and firmly pointed to the same man twice -- Mr. Zigic, as it turned out -- began to waver.

Rather than ask for a simple clarification, the judge began his own bizarre questioning ("What do you mean by the second man in the second row? What is the second row? Is it the row by the wall? What then is the first row?")

The poor witness tried to follow him then finally said he couldn't be sure anymore: "First row or second row, I don't know. It was eight years ago. They both look the same. He has less hair than he used to. It was eight years. People change."

In Texas, as many know, a man, Gary Graham, was executed in July on the evidence of a single witness' fleeting glimpse of him from 30 to 40 feet, at night, in a parking lot, 19 years ago. Witness AE had known Mr. Zigic by sight for two to three years before the war.

Mr. Zigic had been a taxi driver in a nearby village, accustomed to idling between fares at the railway station cafe.

Then came the war, in which AE saw Mr. Zigic nearly every day for a month in the Keraterm camp and allegedly had been beaten by him, too.

But eight years had passed, a man in his early 30s was now well over 40, and AE couldn't be sure anymore what Mr. Zigic looked like.

Which means that we might ask ourselves what we are doing in the United States, and what grave decisions we will allow to stand on the basis of flimsy eyewitness identification.

In The Hague, where no defendant fears execution, the case is built very slowly through a steady accretion of detail, witness by witness by witness.

What is going on in Texas, where one woman who can say she saw a man for seconds in 1981 is enough to send him to his death?

Eric A. Weinberger, whose hometown is The Hague, teaches in the expository writing program at Harvard University.

Copyright 2000 Baltimore Sun. All rights reserved.

Back to The Crime Line