Students Help Monitor Detainee Hearings in Guantanamo Bay

David Martin, Jacqui Merrill, Taylor Steffan and Matt Brooker

Observers travel by boat to the windward side of the island.

April 3, 2015

University of Virginia School of Law students have traveled to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba to monitor pretrial hearings for detainees facing charges related to terrorism.

Students who have gone on the weeklong trip this year are third-year law students Rhett Ricard and Drew LaFountaine, and first-year Nate Freeman. Third-year law student Andrew Lanius is scheduled to take the trip the week of April 6, and first-year law student Maggie Cleary will go the week of May 11.

The students volunteered to serve as nongovernmental observers with Judicial Watch, a nonprofit public interest organization. The role of the observer is designed to help increase the transparency of the proceedings in Guantanamo Bay.

In addition to monitoring the military commissions as observers, the students also had the opportunity to attend press conferences and meet and talk with the legal teams, the court reporter and the judge.

Upon return, each will write a report on their findings, and the time they spend on legal analysis counts toward pro bono hours. (The Law School has a 75-hour pro bono challenge. )

"I'm so grateful for the opportunity to see something I wouldn't have had the chance to experience otherwise," LaFountaine said. "It was a fantastic learning opportunity to get to see both sides of the arguments and be able to ask questions outside the venue of the courthouse."

Drew LaFountaine
Drew LaFountaine

Observers have U.S. Department of Defense escorts, who help with things like finding their way around the base and accessing the courtroom. About a dozen observers representing various human rights organizations, members of the media and victims' family members are present each week there are open proceedings.

Nate Freeman

Nate Freeman

The students said they are able to connect what they've learned in the classroom with what happened in the courtroom.

"I'm excited to bring this experience into other things I'm doing while at law school. I'll bring the knowledge into the classroom, to conferences I attend and to the Clara Barton [international humanitarian law] competition team I'm on," Freeman said.

Rhett Ricard

Rhett Ricard

The students said they are able to connect what they've learned in the classroom with what happened in the courtroom.

"I'm excited to bring this experience into other things I'm doing while at law school. I'll bring the knowledge into the classroom, to conferences I attend and to the Clara Barton [international humanitarian law] competition team I'm on," Freeman said.

Ricard said the experience had substance that focused on international, constitutional and religious liberty law, and connections to professional skills important for law students.

"It was a great learning experience in oral advocacy and witness examination. In many ways the experience was a culmination of both substantive law and professional skills I've learned while in law school," Ricard said.

During the hearings, observers are situated in a gallery with two-way windows separating them from the courtroom. The courtroom itself seats only the necessary personnel, including the judge, clerk, legal teams and security personnel. The audio from the proceedings is streamed into the gallery on a short delay. The delay is in place in an effort to protect the accidental transfer of classified information that may come up during the process.

A video feed of open sessions is also broadcast to Fort Meade in Maryland and available online.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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