Hlophe: ‘Hired gun’ evens the legal odds

People tell Courtenay Griffiths things: that white human flesh tastes like pork, or that the semen samples found in some rape survivors were inserted by a vindictive ex-lover looking to frame the accused.

Griffiths isn't a social worker or a therapist. Nor are the people talking to him confiding in him. In the case of self-confessed cannibal Joseph "Zigzag" Marzah, he was being pushed into a corner by Griffiths's cross-examination during the war crimes trial involving former Liberian president Charles Taylor.

In the case of the rape claims, Griffiths was defence counsel for Delroy Easton Grant, the "Night Stalker" convicted of several rape and robbery charges, involving almost 100 elderly people between the ages of 68 and 93, over a 17-year period in south London.

That an ex-lover had stored Grant's semen in a fridge for several years before deciding to frame him for rape was the defence argument Griffiths had to advance in court.

"That was totally off the wall," says Griffiths. "I was expecting to be dealing with a rational individual and I said: 'Delroy, you don't have a defence, you have to plead this.'

"But he wouldn't … I think it had something to do with the two men he had raped and sexually abused. He didn't want to accept that – this idea that he could be seen as gay. So he came with this absolute nonsense and I had to run with it."

The Jamaican-born Griffiths, who was raised in England, is a prominent Queen's Counsel who has been involved in high-profile cases both in the United Kingdom and internationally. He is in South Africa to represent the Western Cape high court Judge President John Hlophe at a judicial conduct tribunal that starts on Monday.

Hlophe is facing judicial misconduct charges for allegedly attempting to influence two Constitutional Court judges in the 2008 Zuma/Thint matter before them, which involved fraud and corruption charges against President Jacob Zuma.

Griffiths moved to England in 1961 with his family and his formative years were spent in a country where racism was overt and institutionalised.

His first experience of racism was when his 11-member family, who were trudging along to their new home in Coventry, were being stopped in the street by people who wanted to "touch us for good luck or to see if the colour rubbed off".

"The social and economic circumstances in which I grew up caused me to develop an antipathy to the police and I chose to practice criminal law in order to protect the kind of people I grew up with," he says.

He won a scholarship to the prestigious public school Bablake before studying law at the London School of Economics.

His decision was a political statement, he says, "because, when I started out, it was important to have somebody like me in the courtroom fighting cases in that way, with a clear understanding of where my clients were coming from and the political battle they wanted me to fight in the courtroom on their behalf. Because it wasn't just about the individual case, it was about the institutionalised racism within the police force, the judiciary and so on."

Griffiths, who counts Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin and CLR James as some of his political touchstones and believes "Marx is useful as an interpretational tool" to understand geopolitics, says he has "always been a political animal" and that his politics is of the left.

"Consequently, I always saw the courtroom as an arena of struggle. It wasn't always a purely legalistic process involved in the courtroom. You always had to engage with the politics of the situation and I have always sought out the more political cases like the Charles Taylor case, and indeed Judge Hlophe, because I can see that there are some serious political issues to be challenged and it's about having the confidence, the willingness and the readiness to take on these issues in the courtroom."

Griffiths believes the notion of pure law is "complete nonsense". "[Judges] are involved in making political decisions in many instances, and I think, as a lawyer, you have to recognise that reality, otherwise you are not doing your job."

Sitting in a Johannesburg guesthouse that has been converted into a "war room" of sorts for Hlophe's legal team, which also includes attorney Barnabas Xulu and junior counsel Thabani Masuku, Griffiths is easygoing and urbane. He is a master of body language and conversation and it is obvious that he knows his way around people – to the point that he can easily use his legal acumen to eviscerating effect in court.  

He says that, by the time supermodel Naomi Campbell had finished her testimony at the Taylor trial, where she had been called by the prosecution to advance the view that Taylor had given her blood diamonds, she "was my witness".

The English press at the time had contended that, although Campbell had brought glamour to the Taylor trial, Griffiths had been its star with his deadpan one-liners and flamboyant style.

"You always need a line to keep the audience hooked," he says of his brutal cross-examination of Campbell's then estranged agent, Carol White, which he concluded with a line from rapper Grandmaster Flash: "Put bluntly, this is all about the money, there ain't nothing funny."

Griffiths, a former Rastafarian who used to run his own sound system in England when he was younger, says he hooked into Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaata and the like while living in New York when hip-hop exploded there in the early 1980s and he was a regular at gigs in the Bronx.

He considers Taylor "one of my easiest clients" because he "is a very intelligent man, politically very savvy and individually very persuasive". Taylor, says Griffiths, "made himself a very good lawyer" while on trial, often making "imaginative" suggestions to his legal team.

"I must admit that I was expecting someone dictatorial and demanding but he was none of that … I can't suggest that I know Taylor completely – I'm never going to suggest that, because there were moments when you glimpsed another personality …

" I would genuinely say, however, that Taylor might have committed crimes in Liberia for which he should have been put on trial but, for my mind, there wasn't that evidence to convict him for what happened in Sierra Leone."

Griffiths is extremely critical of the "selectivity" of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in who it chooses to prosecute. In the main, they have been African.

"One of my major concerns about the way the ICC is currently focusing on Africa is that, in every Western country with a sizeable black population, you find that the use of stop-and-search powers, the rate of arrests and the rate of imprisonment is disproportionate to black people.

"What we are doing now on a global scale is replicating that association between blackness and criminality. Just as an outsider looking at the ICC now, where everybody is African, the immediate impression you get is that Africa is where war crimes occur.

"What is the difference between a 15-year-old boy in Freetown, during the Freetown invasion, hacking someone's arm off – I'm not condoning it – what's the difference between that and a US soldier or [someone] sitting in a bunker in Nevada controlling a drone over Pakistan? Dropping a bomb on a house knowing that he is not just killing a target but that he is going to wipe out women, children and everything else at the same time?

"What is the difference between the two, and yet that PlayStation style of murder isn't viewed in the same light by the public. Why not?

"[US President Barack] Obama has been using these drones consistently, knowing full well that they can't be used with the accuracy they allege. Knowing full well that he is murdering people – and remember he is the one who has to give the say-so. That man has blood on his hands. I don't think oftentimes people are ready enough to accuse him of that. Obama is a war criminal – that's my view."

Having represented Irish Repub­lican Army bombers, a juvenile charged with murder and a murderer who was acquitted and went on to be convicted of murdering a father and his two children, Griffiths is blunt about his role in ensuring that, to maintain the rule of law, there must be a semblance of equality between prosecution and defence.

"Over the years, I have defended some morally very troubling cases but my position is that I am not the moral judge of the court … In the most basic terms, I am a hired gun. I'm a mercenary. I'm there to be their voice in court, but that doesn't mean that I become them. As a result, when I leave the courtroom, I have very little difficulty jettisoning what happened there. I sleep extremely soundly."

  • On Thursday, Taylor lost his appeal at the Appeals Chamber of the Special Court for Sierra Leone to have an earlier conviction on charges including crimes against humanity overturned. The 66-year-old will serve a minimum of 50 years in prison.
Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist.

His areas of interest include social justice; citizen mobilisation and state violence; protest; the constitution and the constitutional court and football.


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