Witnesses are difficult or impossible to find, some having moved to remote African villages accessible only by muddy roads rarely patrolled by police. Many survivors of Liberia's bloody civil war who witnessed acts of torture are reluctant to talk to anyone about what happened, let alone a defense lawyer for the notorious son of former Liberian President Charles Taylor.
Then there are the language and cultural barriers. These and other problems have forced a delay until spring in the trial in Miami federal court of Taylor's son Charles McArthur Emmanuel, or Chuckie Taylor, the first person to be prosecuted under a law making it a crime for a U.S. citizen to commit torture or war crimes overseas.
People who have dealt with similar issues in war-torn western Africa say the difficulties are not surprising, given rampant official corruption and an almost complete lack of functional government institutions.
"It will take a generation for Sierra Leone and Liberia to recover from the horrors that Charles Taylor and his henchmen, including Chuckie, have wrought on their fellow man," said David Crane, a law professor at Syracuse University in New York and former chief prosecutor for the United Nations Special Court for Sierra Leone.
Emmanuel, 30, is charged in an eight-count indictment with involvement in horrific acts of torture and killings from spring 1999 to late 2002 as head of the Anti-Terrorist Unit — also called the Demon Forces — during his father's presidency. Emmanuel was born in Boston to an ex-girlfriend of Taylor, who studied economics at Bentley College there.
Emmanuel's job as head of the paramilitary unit was to eliminate or intimidate his father's political opponents through whatever means he saw fit, federal prosecutors maintain.
"He had a reputation for mindless evil who enjoyed personally torturing individuals," Crane said.
Like any defendant in a U.S. court, Emmanuel has rights to see the evidence against him, find possibly favorable witnesses and confront his accusers. But his court-appointed attorney, Miguel Caridad, said it has been a formidable task meeting those obligations.
"We're going to a bridge where people's heads were cut off and put on top of the bridge and to a police station where people were tortured," Caridad said at a recent court hearing. "We need to know the names of witnesses and whether they know of any other people who might have been there."
Caridad said he has traveled twice to Liberia and neighboring African countries in attempts to locate people who may have seen the alleged crimes, sometimes finding they have moved hours away to rural areas reachable only by difficult-to-traverse roads. Often there is no electricity, water or police protection and intermittent cell phone capabilities, and Caridad and his assistants are forced to carry cash brought from home for basic expenses.
"It's just a very, very difficult thing to get done," Caridad said.
Because of these problems, U.S. District Judge Cecilia M. Altonaga postponed Emmanuel's trial from January to April of next year, with prosecutors agreeing that mounting a proper defense in this case poses unique challenges.
"The government does not want to prevent the defense from completing a thorough and professional investigation," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen Rochlin. "We don't want to be unreasonable."
There is a lot at stake in making sure Emmanuel is properly tried on the charges beyond his own rights as a defendant.
Emmanuel was arrested in March 2006 at Miami International Airport on charges of lying about his father's identity on a U.S. passport application, to which he pleaded guilty. Emmanuel wound up in Trinidad after his father left the Liberian presidency in 2003 amid repeated calls by President George W. Bush and others for Taylor to step down.
Taylor is charged in a special U.N. court in The Hague, Netherlands, with arming and supporting rebels — some of them only children — in neighboring Sierra Leone who killed tens of thousands of people, hacking the limbs off thousands more. He is jailed and his trial, which he interrupted when it began last June, is scheduled to resume next month.
Crane said the twin prosecutions against Taylor and his son are important for millions of Africans who suffered during these conflicts, particularly as governments and international groups try to rebuild respect for the law in those nations.
"It sends a message to all Africans that their lives matter and that those who choose to commit acts of atrocity will be held accountable," Crane said.
The Emmanuel prosecution also marks the first test for the 1994 U.S. law making it a crime for an American citizen to commit torture or war crimes overseas. Judge Altonaga earlier this year rejected the defense argument that the law was unconstitutional, but Emmanuel could argue that point again on appeal if he is convicted.
Emmanuel, who is being held without bail, could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted on all charges against him.