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UNC Honor Court Seeks Education, Not Penalty

The legal court system is an adversarial system that pits the prosecution and the defense against each other, but officials say the Honor Court is only quasi-adversarial because it tries to educate rather than punish the defendant.

"We want the students to walk away with something, so we try to emphasize the educational mission of the University," said Student Attorney General Amanda Spillman.

Although the two systems have close similarities -- such as the standard of proof and the appeals process -- the absence of a prosecution and the purpose behind punishments steer the mind-sets of the courts in different directions.

The University judicial system deals with two spheres of student life: academic integrity and student conduct. Plagiarism accusations, for example, are cases confined to the University's judicial system, but the Honor Court also deals with student misconduct, such as sexual assault, that might be tried in a district court at the same time.

Honor courts differ from regular courts of law because they deal with different communities, said law Professor Judith Wegner, chairwoman of the Committee on Student Conduct, which proposes changes and receives amendments to the court.

"Much of the purpose is different because (the University Honor Court) is trying to set up a system of integrity."

Dean Bresciani, interim vice chancellor for student affairs, said the two systems should not be similar because of their differing goals where trials are concerned.

"The University should not be court-like because students come here to be educated, not punished," Bresciani said. "A violation of the Honor Code is not a crime; in a sense you're just cheating yourself of an education and of being part of the University community."

The only concrete similarity between a legal court and Honor Court is the standard of proof. In both systems, a defendant must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

But UNC's standard of proof is under review and could be changed to "clear and convincing evidence," which decreases the amount of certainty needed to convict and moves the Honor Court further away from other court-like characteristics.

Spillman said that often in sexual assault cases brought to legal court, there is not enough evidence to convict and that sometimes students don't want to take the case to court at all. With a relaxed standard, students can turn to the Honor Court for justice and counseling.

"It's relatively impossible for a person to be convicted of sexual assault (in legal courts) because there is no evidence, but the Honor Court can be the default," Spillman said.

"We want to make sure the student has an outlet."

To ensure a difference between a regular court of law and UNC's judicial system, Honor Court has no prosecution, said Greg Weiss, a COSC member who is one of three faculty on the board.

"If you watch a show like 'The Practice,' there is one guy whose goal is to get a conviction at all costs," Weiss said. "We still have a defense counsel, but there's no person whose goal is conviction."

In place of a prosecutor, the Honor Court has an investigator who collects and presents evidence against the defendant and counsels the complainant on procedure.

But the investigator does not feel pressure to get a conviction. For example, the investigator will turn over to the defense any evidence that proves the defendant is not guilty.

Along with the prosecutor, the judge and jury are missing from the Honor Court. After the student attorney general decides to charge a student, the case is heard by a panel of four students led by a chairman instead of an all-powerful judge and a detached jury.

Unlike a jury, the students on the panel are not randomly chosen from the entire population. The students on the panel are picked at random from a pool of students who choose to be part of the system and are interviewed by the attorney general.

To ensure objectivity in the court, all students are asked if they know the defendant or have any information that would keep them from being impartial, which is similar to the process of jury selection in the legal court system.

Weiss said the way the honor system is structured is important because it provides a standardized method for proving guilt or innocence and assigning a punishment for guilt.

"(The honor system) does not allow individual faculty to take action, which is a good thing because it gets uniformity in the system," Weiss said.

"It also takes it out of the hands of one person who is not detached from the situation."

One of the key reasons that the University judicial system is set up differently from other systems, Spillman said, is because in Honor Court, no one's freedom is at stake.

In Honor Court, students do not have to fear life sentences in prison or the death penalty if found guilty by the panel, but they are subject to sanctions.

Sanctions are commonly an "F" in a class, probation, suspension or expulsion.

But sanctions also can keep a student from living in residence halls, driving on campus or participating in student organizations.

If students are unhappy with the verdict they receive, they can appeal the ruling the same way someone found guilty of a crime in a legal court could.

This upholds a student's right to a fair trial.

Instead of appealing to the state, federal and eventually U.S. Supreme courts, students can appeal to the University Hearings Board, the Faculty Advisory Board and eventually the chancellor.

Jonathan Slain, the student attorney general chief of staff, said the Honor Court is moving away from the formal proceedings of legal court toward a more educational focus.

"Our system is more educational now than it's ever been; it's more comfortable with students doing this than faculty," Slain said.

"It actually feels more like social work sometimes."

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