One afternoon, just before he took a job as a state judge in 1990, federal prosecutor Richard G. Stearns was clearing out his desk at the U.S. Attorney's office in Boston when he came across an old piece of evidence: the wallet belonging to Charles Taylor, a young Liberian bureaucrat he had attempted to extradite back to his homeland in 1985.
"He was a reasonably educated and polished in his own way," Stearns recalled. "But I did not honestly see him at that time as what he became, which was bloodthirsty."
Taylor was educated at Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts before returning home to serve in the government of brutal dictator Samuel Doe. After falling out of favor with Doe, Taylor returned to the United States, where he was arrested in 1984 on embezzlement charges. Famously, however, he escaped from a jail in Plymouth before he could be extradited, emerged a short time later as a warlord in the Liberian bush, and fought his way toward the presidency of his country, building a political career through a succession of humanitarian catastrophes in West Africa.
The Taylor case remained a dangling thread for Stearns. Until Thursday.
Stearns -- now a federal judge in Massachusetts -- heard, along with rapt audiences in Freetown, Monrovia, and in the gallery at the Special Court for Sierra Leone at The Hague, what may be the final word on the former Liberian president's career: Taylor was found guilty on 11 counts of aiding and abetting Sierra Leonean rebels in crimes including the murder, rape, and conscription of child soldiers during that country's 1990s civil war.
Yet, for all the finality of the decision, questions linger. Was justice served in his trial? Did the proceedings clarify or further obscure Taylor's myth? And what impact, if any, will the court's decision have of on the future of Liberia?
Both Taylor's enemies and supporters, of whom many are still in influential political position in Monrovia, criticize the Special Court for holding Taylor to account for crimes related to Sierra Leone, rather than the civil war he launched in Liberia. As Taylor's former Defense Minister Tom Woewiyu said in an interview this week, "Those who are trying Taylor for Sierra Leone, they're more or less saying to what he did in Liberia, to hell with the Liberians."
Woewiyu said the nature of the court's indictment of the president while he was still in power in 2003 prompted questions over whether the international community -- the United States and Britain in particular -- were using the court as a means to remove him from office. The Special Court was intended to be an organ of international justice, not a cudgel of Western policies. But many of those involved, including Taylor himself, saw it as just that.