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Cheating Charges Against Trinh Dismissed

At about 12:30 a.m. the appellate tribunal of the Honor Court dismissed his case, finding that his basic rights had been violated in his October hearing and that this affected the outcome.

"I'm ready to get this behind me," Trinh said. "I'm disappointed it took this long, but it's over, and I guess I'm wiser for the experience."

Trinh was found guilty in October of academic cheating by unauthorized collaboration on a homework assignment in his Computer Science 120 course. His punishment was academic probation and an F in the course.

Trinh was one of 24 students Professor James Coggins turned in for cheating at the end of the 2000 spring semester.

And Trinh's case is one of several that have been under appeal in recent weeks, all questioning the Honor Court's proceedings in October.

Although Trinh is still awaiting the appellate board's written rationale of its decision, he speculated that the ruling was based on two main violations of his rights: He was initially told he would be tried alone and was later tried with another student, and the charges against him were changed from Internet posting to unauthorized collaboration 48 to 72 hours before his hearing. Defendants are supposed to know their charges at least 96 hours before the hearing.

But Student Attorney General Taylor Lea defends the October proceedings. "Our office handled the cases in the most appropriate manner that was possible, and nobody's rights were violated without that person's consent," she said.

Because of the large number of defendants in the case, Lea said the 50 Honor Court members could only handle them one of three ways: to try some defendants with Honor Court members who already had heard one of their classmate's cases, try the defendants in groups or wait for new Honor Court members to be chosen and trained this spring.

"This is the way our system can handle these cases, and most students chose to go in pairs," Lea said.

Some other students who received guilty verdicts last semester are now seeking appeals. Lea could not say how many cases were up for appeal, but she did say she expected all appeals to be finished by the end of this semester.

Junior Brianne Roth, who was tried with Trinh, completed her appeal Feb. 1. She said her case also was dismissed on one of the charges she appealed but declined to say which one. "I felt the appeals process went very well."

Coggins said he has only been notified of one case dismissal and was disappointed by the results. "The students I am concerned about are those who worked hard and earned their grade fairly," Coggins said. "Every instance of cheating is a slap in the face to those students. The system has let them down."

Another defendant, who wishes to remain anonymous, said her appeal resulted in a dismissal because her basic rights had been violated.

She was represented at her appeal by junior Bill Hashemi, founder of the Independent Defense Council, a student group that offers an alternative to representation by the student attorney general's office. Lea said that while any undergraduate student can act as defense counsel in an Honor Court case, her office usually recommends its own representatives.

"In most cases, the average Joe Blow individual isn't adequately trained," Lea said. "We usually recommend taking someone from our office because of their training."

But the defendant said she chose Hashemi because she found the defense counsel appointed by the Honor Court to be unacceptable. "I don't think my defense counsel put the time in, and I think she did a very poor job," she said. "Anyone could have done the job my other counsel did."

She also thought it was inappropriate that her defense counsel was an investigator in another Computer Science 120 case, putting her on both sides of the issue. "Of course we didn't know this," the defendant said. "It was all behind the scene."

Lea said this is not conflict of interest. "We have a nonadversial system," Lea said. "The purpose is to uncover the truth. The defense isn't there to get the defendant off but to uncover the truth and act in the defendant's best interest."

But in the past eight months, that system has been under scrutiny, becoming one of the major issues in the platforms of student body president candidates. Trinh said the Honor Court needs to select students at random to serve as jurors and separate the prosecution from the defense. "If it's good enough for the U.S. justice system, it's good enough for us," he said.

Hashemi said his formation of the IDC was spurred by the complaints he had heard about the Computer Science 120 cases.

"The attorney general's office is an organization on campus dedicated to convicting students," Hashemi said. "Defending students is secondary. I created IDC so there'd be an organization for the sole purpose of defending student rights."

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The IDC is not currently defending students because its members have not yet undergone training.

Lea said the court was open to reform, especially in the area of resources. She said the court is still seeking a full-time judicial programs officer, who would act as an adviser. She also said the court acts as an arm of the administration and that its members put in long hours with no pay.

But Lea said she did not see the need for separate counsels.

"I'm not opposed to it, but I don't think it's necessary," Lea said. "I've never seen it to be a problem. No one's ever screwed over a defendant."

"People within my staff are very responsible and take this very seriously. I think it would just be incredible amounts of work for everyone."

For the students whose guilty verdicts have been overturned, the only remaining issue is their grade in Computer Science 120.

Hashemi's client, whose appeal was completed three weeks ago, has yet to receive her grade.

"I would have loved if it was over," Hashemi's client said. "Thank God everything was dropped. (Coggins) wants to give us more headaches. I guess he feels since the Honor Court didn't do something he's got to take it into his own hands."

Roth, who also has yet to receive her grade, said she thinks Coggins could either hold the grade or give her a lower grade than the one she would have first received.

"None of us wants to upset Coggins right now," Roth said. "We could go through grade appeal, but no one wants to do that."

Lea said that grades are generally received two weeks after the hearing and that any delays are probably due to the Registrar's Office.

Junior Kevin Berry has been waiting months for his Computer Science 120 grade. His Honor Court hearing was completed in early October, when he was found not guilty. Berry said the Registrar's Office has informed him that it is the responsibility of the teacher to turn in the grade.

"Maybe he's just waiting for all the trials to be over," Berry said. "Or he's just not happy about the outcomes and doesn't want to give them out."

Coggins said he will determine the grades based on instructions from the dean of students and the students' performances in the class.

"I will turn them in when I'm required to turn them in," Coggins said. "I have always done my duty to these students, and I will continue to do my duty, but not until I'm required to."

Coggins said he is uncertain of what he will be doing at the end of the semester, adding that leaving is always a possibility because computer science professionals are in high demand.

"The fact that UNC students would cheat this way so blatantly has shaken my confidence in UNC undergraduates," he said.

But Coggins said the eight months of hearings and appeals would not alone give him reason to leave.

"It's not my fault they cheated," he said. "It is a disappointment that they did, but it doesn't affect my willingness to be employed at this University."

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

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