Jury Deliberating Fate of Bosnian Refugee | Off Message

Jury Deliberating Fate of Bosnian Refugee


Updated, 3:39 p.m. on 1/23/2015: Jurors have found Edin Sakoc guilty of lying to immigration authorities in a verdict this afternoon. He was being released to home confinement; federal authorities indicated they will seek to deport him.

Jurors are now in their second day and ninth hour of deliberating the fate of Edin Sakoc, the Burlington man charged with lying to immigration officials about violent acts he allegedly committed during the Bosnian War. Prosecutors say that Sakoc, a 55-year-old father who has lived in Vermont for more than a decade, raped a woman and left her at a prison camp. They say Sakoc stood by while a soldier shot two women, and then helped him drag their bodies away. He is charged with lying about those acts while applying for American citizenship.

  • Aaron Shrewsbury
  • Edin Sakoc
So what are jurors trying to sort out?

Last night, after deliberating for an hour, jurors requested to hear nearly two hours of testimony offered during the trial. This morning, they asked the judge if they could have a dictionary to look up the meaning of the word “persecution,” one of many words used in questions on immigration forms. (Judge William Sessions III denied the request; no dictionary had been introduced into evidence.)

What could be going on in the jury room?

First, a big disclaimer: Lawyers will tell you that the best way to look foolish is to try and predict what a jury is doing by interpreting the length of their deliberations and the nature of their questions. But for the sake of discussion, please excuse my foolishness. 

Jurors could be hopelessly deadlocked. There could be one holdout. They could have reached a tentative decision but want to make sure they are right. They may have held out for a free lunch. (Don’t laugh. Rare is the jury that will return a verdict while the time for their next free meal is near.) They could be scheming for ways to get to serve on this dude’s trial.

But as we wait for a decision, let's consider some unique features in this case.

This stuff has been really, really confusing.

Questions surrounding the law, credibility of witnesses and the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt are pretty complicated even in the most straightforward cases. This case is anything but. Attorneys from both sides, along with historians and cultural anthropologists, have given veritable seminars on the history of Bosnia and the ethnic conflicts of the Balkans. Defense lawyers in particular have insisted that jurors have to understand the ethnic tensions of Bosnia to understand the accusations against Sakoc, which they say are baseless. You might vaguely remember how confusing this all is from the news in the 1990s or from college classes. Here’s a Cliff’s Notes version of what jurors have been told:

After the fall of communism in the early 1990s, provinces in Yugoslavia splintered. In the province of Bosnia, ethic Serbs, along with leaders and forces from the neighboring province of Serbia, attacked ethnic Croats and Muslims. Croats and Muslims briefly banded together and, in the region where Sakoc lived, pushed the Serbs out relatively fast — by July 1992. But then Croats turned on their Muslim allies. Sakoc, who is Muslim, was a soldier battling the Serbs and cited persecution by Croats as part of his successful application for American refugee status. Sakoc's alleged victims are Serbs, while most of the witnesses have been Croats. Got all that? Now imagine the more complex version jurors have been given.

Just what is it that they have to decide, anyway?

Most juries have to consider whether or not a defendant committed the crime for which they are charged. But it’s trickier for this jury. Sakoc is not on trial for rape, kidnapping or participating in any murders, but it sure felt like it during the two- week trial. Technically, Sakoc is charged with one count (initially two, but prosecutors dropped one late in the trial) of lying on immigration forms. In the words of prosecutor Jay Bauer, Sakoc “checked no when he should have checked yes,” to a handful of questions about whether he had committed crimes or acts of violence back in Bosnia.

But, of course, to prove that Sakoc lied, prosecutors had to show he had something lie about. So they spent hour upon hour trying to show that Sakoc committed rape and aided in the murders. Did they have to prove those actions according to the legal standard for conviction: beyond a reasonable doubt? Well, no. In fact, there's no standard of proof for those allegations. In this case the standard is whatever it takes for 12 Vermonters to agree that Sakoc had something to lie about.

And while there was a lot of testimony that Sakoc was involved in those acts, it wasn’t exactly a slam-dunk case. As defense attorneys pointed out, there was some conflicting testimony. Further, the alleged rape victim didn’t levy her accusation for 20 years, and on at least 10 previous occasions she told investigators or judicial authorities that she wasn’t raped. And Sakoc indicated to investigators that he believed at least some of what he did qualified as legitimate actions for a soldier in a time of war.

So jurors have to sort all that out, all before they get to the crime he is actually charged with. 

Language barrier?

Most of the witnesses in the trial did not speak English and haven’t even physically been in the courtroom. American prosecutors and defense attorneys traveled to Bosnia last year, put witnesses under oath, went through their testimony and cross examinations, and recorded them with the help of interpreters. Jurors spent most of the trial watching those videos. It's been a strange experience, to say the least.