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The Daily Tar Heel

Hearings Spur Court Review

"All I was doing was my duty as I understood it," Coggins said about reporting the students for doing groupwork on an out-of-class programming assignment.

But the practices of the Honor Court were thrust into the spotlight when two of the students, juniors Mike Trinh and Brianne Roth, opened their hearing to the public.

After the case concluded and the Honor Court members convicted both students of unauthorized collaboration, people from all segments of the University community raised a rallying cry for reform.

Student advisory boards organized forums, student body president candidates included Honor Court reform in their platforms, concerned students organized alternative defense options, and administrators promised to focus a scrutinizing eye on the student judicial system.

"I think stuff really came to a head this year with the computer science cases," said Sue Kitchen, vice chancellor for student affairs.

"A number of the students came to see me about their individual situations, which would break your heart."

But Student Attorney General Brad Newcomb said the explosion in attention paid to the Honor Court is not necessarily deserved.

"I think we should definitely be questioned every time we do something," Newcomb said. "Scrutiny is fine, but disapproval is a little too quick in my eyes.

"It gave us a lot of bad press we need to make up for."

Newcomb said the attention has had definite negative effects, even deterring professors from reporting students to the student attorney general's office.

"Professors continue to say, 'After the computer science debacle, I didn't want to come to you, and I hope you do a better job with this case,'" Newcomb said.

But members of the student judicial system say they're determined to use the call for reform as a chance to internally improve.

"I think a lot of positive things came out of the computer science experience," said Marcela Vesela, chairwoman of the Honor Court. "We definitely got exposure.

"It's always a problem of getting the word out about us."

Vesela said she plans to continue the exposure by holding an Honor Integrity Week in October, during which freshmen will be required to attend information sessions about violations of the Honor Code and sanctions they could face.

Beyond outreach, Newcomb and Vesela said they are focusing on improving the training of counsels and Honor Court members and on speeding up the trial process.

"I think if there's going to be reform, it's going to take a while -- it's not going to just take a semester."

Over the summer, Newcomb and Vesela will be working with administrators to find ways to improve the student judicial system.

Faculty Chairwoman Sue Estroff said she has worked with Kitchen and Dean of Students Melissa Exum to create an "ambitious work plan" for this summer.

"This did not come up in response to the computer science situation," Estroff said.

"We knew we needed to take a look at the Honor Court system, but our motivation was enhanced by that."

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She said there are some things the faculty needs to improve on its own, such as the faculty's involvement in regards to advising, training and hearing cases.

In the current student judicial system, faculty members are not directly involved in case hearings, during which students serve as defense, prosecution and jury.

Faculty members only have a direct say in student cases when they serve on the University Hearings Board during the appellate stage.

And Trinh, whose case was overturned in appeals, said he believes his original hearing might have gone differently if faculty had been present at that level.

"In retrospect, after having faculty members sit on appeal boards and have them ask questions that were much more logical and made more sense, I would have preferred to have faculty at my hearing."

But Vesela said the idea of having faculty members hear cases is not feasible.

"I can't foresee faculty volunteering to stay every night of the week because they have families," she said.

"If you have faculty on one case, you have to have them for all cases."

Trinh also said he was displeased with the prosecution and defense collaborating and being housed in one office.

"It was basically me versus them," Trinh said.

In response to this argument, junior William Hashemi started the Independent Defense Counsel, which provides charged students with a defense counsel outside the student attorney general's office.

Hashemi said the organization avoids two main conflicts of interest that exist in the attorney general's office.

He said the prosecution and defense pursue two very different goals and that it is inappropriate for them to collaborate and be in the same office.

The second conflict, Hashemi said, is that one student on the attorney general staff can serve as the investigator in one hearing and then as the defense counsel in another hearing.

"A member that defends me may be prosecuting my classmate," he said. "That's a conflict of interest that's intuitive."

But Newcomb said he does not believe there is a system problem that needs to be changed.

"I think as long as all counsels on staff understand what their duties are, there are no problems having both the investigator and defense in the same suite."

Newcomb, however, did say he is committed to the reform goals of increasing the system's publicity and improving the training of counsels.

But he said any reforms beyond that will not go into effect in the near future.

"Within the next year or so, changes will be made," Newcomb said.

And while Trinh has not been closely following the discussion of Honor Court reform, he said he doesn't expect to see improvement in the system he believes failed him.

"I'll wait until something gets done and then judge," he said.

"The Honor Court has left a bad taste in my mouth in regards to Carolina."

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