Richard May, judge in Milosevic trial, dies at 65
Posted on Mon, Jul. 05, 2004
By Marlise Simons
NEW YORK TIMES
PARIS - Sir Richard May, a British judge who presided over the first two years of the war crimes trial of the former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, before falling ill early this year, died Thursday at his home in Oxford, England. He was 65.
He suffered from a brain tumor, friends of the family said.
Sir Richard, a low-key barrister who received a knighthood a week before his death, joined the United Nations tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in 1997 and served on the bench in numerous cases. But he became best known as the judge in command of the complex Milosevic war crimes trial, the first of its kind for a modern head of state.
High on the bench, in his crimson robe, peering over his glasses, he often had to engage in a test of wills with a defiant Milosevic.
Sometimes prickly but mostly unperturbed, Sir Richard steered the proceedings that in the Milosevic case covered charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide relating to the wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo of the 1990s. He regularly coaxed Milosevic, who has acted as his own lawyer, by prodding and prompting him on what questions to ask a witness.
Two years into the trial, as a turning point approached and the prosecution was about to rest its case, Sir Richard's grave illness forced him to step down.
"The Milosevic trial is a defining moment in international law and Richard May made it into a professional trial, not just a performance," said Antoine Garapon, a former French judge who directs the Institute for Advanced Judicial Studies in Paris. "And he did the near-impossible, he managed to engage the obstinate Milosevic and pull him in."
At a tribunal where the 16 judges come from many nations, different legal traditions and even from careers as diplomats and academics, Sir Richard stood out as an experienced and practical judge. Theodor Meron, the tribunal president, said that Sir Richard had made major contributions in developing rules of procedure and evidence in the new field of international human rights law that "significantly improved the work of the tribunal and will be of great value to all international criminal courts."
Richard George May, who was born in London in 1939 and graduated from Cambridge University, gained his experience first as a criminal prosecutor, then as a junior circuit judge in Oxford. He briefly entered politics, serving on the Westminster City Council, where he became an advocate for homeless children and low-income housing. In 1979, he ran and lost as a Labor Party candidate for Parliament against Margaret Thatcher. She, of course, went on to become prime minister and he went back to the law.
In The Hague, Sir Richard was widely liked and admired by his colleagues, who called him a fair, self-effacing, kind, accessible and a witty man who was a master of understatements. His wit was rarely visible in court, where he was careful of preserving decorum.
Although he was eager to preside over the Milosevic case as a member of the three-judge panel, Sir Richard did not cherish the limelight that came with it. He would politely greet an approaching reporter, but never engage in conversation, let alone in interviews.
Geoffrey Nice, the lead prosecutor in the Milosevic case , who said he had spent more than 500 days in court with Sir Richard in several trials, said he found the judge to be "a very generous and a very modest man, who never tried to grandstand or show off his great knowledge." Rather he said, Sir Richard used his knowledge to assist witnesses or defense counsel to move the proceedings along.
He avoided confrontations with aggressive lawyers, but would not tolerate rudeness. He told one brazen Serb lawyer that "courtesy is common to all continents." But he usually chose to overlook the stridency of Milosevic, ignoring for example the fact that he refused to stand up when addressing the court and insisted on calling him "Mr. May"
Sir Richard opposed strong pressure from the prosecution to impose a defense lawyer on Milosevic, which would have simplified and speeded up proceedings. He insisted that Milosevic's right to self-defense had to prevail. But he reined him in at times by cutting off his microphone, or, after one bout of scoffing at the court, by interrupting him with the words: "your views about the tribunal are completely irrelevant."
Over time, the two men seemed to reach a kind of truce, as Milosevic mellowed and Sir Richard kept urging him to avoid irrelevancies and be a better advocate of his case. But he also let Milsosevic air his grievances against NATO for the bombing of Yugoslavia at points when it was not relevant.
In the past year, it was Milosevic who missed many court days because of high blood pressure and heart disease. What was not known was that Sir Richard himself, who never missed a day in court, was already ill but seemed determined to hold out until a break in the trial as the prosecution ended its case. His last day in court, Jan. 28, he seemed distracted and tired, but kept prodding Milosevic as usual: "Just move on, let's not waste time," he said several times. Then as prosecutors and the accused squabbled, he said: "That all today. We have no further time." He picked up his binders and walked out for the last time.
Sir Richard is survived by his wife Radmila May and their three children.