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The Daily Tar Heel

New Defense Option Draws Some Heat

But Student Attorney General Taylor Lea questions whether the organization possesses the legal training to represent its clients with the same degree of effectiveness as members of her office.

The Independent Defense Council, a student organization composed of UNC pre-law undergraduates, conducted its first meeting Jan. 16 with the goal of giving students an alternative to legal representation by members of the student attorney general's office.

Students accused of Honor Code violations are tried by members of the student-run Honor Court and get representation by the student attorney general's office, which also is run by students.

"Students here are not offered any choice," said IDC founder William Hashemi, a junior economics major. "Most of them don't know anybody they can ask to defend them."

Hashemi said the idea for the defense council came after he spoke with several students convicted in the Computer Science 120 cheating case earlier this year, one of whom he is currently defending in an appeals trial.

"From the details that I got from her and her classmates, their defense was insufficient, to put it mildly," he said.

Last October, Professor James Coggins accused 24 students of cheating because of group work he said they did in his Computer Science 120 class. Two of these students were convicted of the charges in an open hearing that raised questions about student-run court procedures.

Hashemi, a pre-law student who has worked with lawyers in the past, said his primary concern with the Computer Science 120 case was that some members of the student attorney general's office served as the prosecution in some of the cases and then provided defense counsel in other students' hearings. "They're allies and not opponents. That damages the drive that the defense should have for their clients," he said.

Hashemi also said he is concerned that the organization will not be recognized as a viable defense alternative by Lea. "We just ask that she mentions our names to those being tried," he said.

Although Lea said she would inform accused students about IDC, she said she would not recommend their council because they lack the legal training of Honor Court members. These members must train for a semester before they are allowed to serve as defense counsel.

"I just would be terrified that students would choose one of those individuals to represent them and then end up with the short end of the stick," she said.

Lea also expressed concern that IDC members were motivated by personal rather than student interests. "I fear that they're just interested in having power over the Honor Court," she said. "The accused student is going to lose because their interests are being represented by someone who just wants to be Matlock."

But Hashemi said IDC would make up for lost training time by consulting UNC law professors for legal advice.

Hashemi also said the competition of an independent council would have given students a more fair trial in the Computer Science 120 cases. "We would have given (Professor Coggins) a bigger challenge to his policies and duties as a professor."

Hashemi said that with the permanent academic record of students at stake, such competition is needed to ensure justice. "We want to make this process as fair as possible because the consequences of a guilty verdict are real."

The University Editor can be reached at udesk@unc.edu.

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