‘A more heartfelt appreciation of life’

Special to The Times

Gregory Townsend’s legal career has taken him from run-of-the-mill cases as a deputy public defender in L.A. to one of the most shocking mass crimes in history as a U.N. prosecutor in Africa -- “from prostitution to genocide” as he describes it.

It’s an odyssey that’s allowed him to see some of the worst -- and best -- in human nature, including one case that he’s still grappling with as he returns home to Los Angeles after four years overseas.

He vividly recalls a Tutsi rape victim who testified at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. At 18, she was knocked down and left for dead during a machete attack that killed her family. Regaining consciousness, she sought protection at the governor’s office, only to meet up with a Hutu militia that over the next months kept her starving outside in the frontyard. She was gang-raped more than 40 times.


“She said, ‘Why has God forsaken us and left me to suffer?’ ” Townsend relates, his face darkening at the memory. “They were waiting, asking to be killed. During the trial, it occurred to me for the first time that April is the rainy season. These horrible events were happening to her without shelter.

“The image of her in such dire straits in the rain was an extremely emotional moment. I was close to asking for a recess -- not for her, but for me.”

Parents influenced career

When Townsend was growing up in West Los Angeles, dinner-table conversation often centered around criminal law: His mother was a parole agent with a “crook book” of mug shots and rap sheets, and his stepfather, a judge presiding over parole revocation hearings.

The talk took: Townsend became an attorney, graduating from Loyola Law School in 1996 and signing on as a Los Angeles deputy public defender the next year.

But he found himself eager to make use of the international law he had previously studied in Geneva. Job hunting online one day, he came across an opening for a law clerk for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the entity prosecuting high-level defendants in the 1994 Hutu genocide of the ethnic Tutsi minority in that East African country, and submitted his application.

So in November 1998, Townsend left L.A. for Arusha, the Tanzanian city where the tribunal is based. Moving up the legal ladder, he became an assistant trial attorney in 2000. Three years later, he moved to Pristina, Kosovo, as a U.N. international prosecutor of war crimes. In January he returned home to L.A. to look for a job and settle back into life as he once knew it.

“I’m not sure I’m in USA mode yet,” Townsend, 38, confesses, relaxing after a quesadilla lunch at a favorite Beverly Boulevard cafe. “I’m being weaned off. I had a one-year contract, and I told everyone I’d be back in a year. But I fell in love with Tanzania. And the work was incredibly fascinating.”

As a U.N. prosecutor, Townsend worked with a staff from 80 countries on two cases: the Butare trial, named for the south Rwandan region where massacres allegedly took place, and the Seromba trial, after Father Athanase Seromba, a Catholic priest who allegedly gave the order to bulldoze his own church, killing 2,000 Tutsi members of his flock.

During the course of his work, he made regular visits to the Hotel des Mille Collines of “Hotel Rwanda” fame, stopping there on his way to and from debriefing witnesses. “The hotel served as a meeting point for ex-pats,” he says. “The pool from which the characters in the movie were drinking to survive is still popular today for a weekend swim.” (An original HBO telefilm, “Sometimes in April,” which premieres March 19, also dramatizes events of the Rwandan genocide, including scenes from a tribunal trial with dialogue taken from transcripts.)

The six defendants in the Butare trial, which has been going on for four years and is expected to finish this year, include two governors and one minister, Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, the only woman tried for genocide.

“The allegations are that during the 100 days of the genocide, from April to July, the defendants organized multiple massacres of ethnic Tutsis in crime scenes ranging from schools to churches to government offices,” says Townsend, a tall, thoughtful man whose accounts bring vivid immediacy to events that happened thousands of miles away. “It’s safe to say 220,000 people perished. I had one crime scene where more than 10,000 people were slaughtered.”

Nyiramasuhuko, the mother of another defendant, a son with the unlikely name of Shalom, is known as “the minister of rape” because a group of militia led by Shalom allegedly raped and killed under her orders. Townsend questioned several of the rape victims.

“That was the most emotional part for me,” he recalls. “These courageous victims would come forward in court and tell their stories. It was heart wrenching.”

Kids called him ‘ghost’

Townsend’s trials took place at the Chinese-built office complex that served as tribunal headquarters. To get there each morning, he would drive through the local village, accompanied by the sounds of small children calling, “mzungul!” (ghost), a friendly reference to his fair skin. He chose to live among the Tanzanians rather than with fellow ex-pats, settling in a three-bedroom house surrounded by banana plantations and small farm plots, which he shared with a friend and a dog.

“I felt at home there and perfectly safe,” he says. “I loved so much about Tanzania -- the open spaces and clear skies, the proximity one can live with nature, the friendliness of the neighbors, the patience toward a slower-paced life. But it was difficult to live among poverty and the lack of medical facilities.”

Indeed, he contracted malaria four times, the most recent manifesting after his arrival in L.A. two months ago. There was one advantage to Tanzanian treatment, though: He would have paid $1 for a lab test and $2.50 for a Chinese herb there, rather than the $500 medical bill he ran up here.

Townsend’s efforts on behalf of the tribunal impressed colleague Jonathan Moses, a senior trial attorney from Auckland, New Zealand, who worked with him on the Butare and Seromba trials.

“Greg is extremely conscientious and is meticulously prepared for court,” Moses said by e-mail from Arusha. “He also took it upon himself, as he was not satisfied with some of the photographs taken of our crime scenes, to take some excellent photos that were subsequently used in one of the trials.”

On this day in Los Angeles, Townsend has brought along photos of his travels to share. To unwind from his often searing workdays, he escaped to national parks on the weekends. An athlete who ran the New York Marathon just before coming to Tanzania, he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and other peaks and went scuba diving in Zanzibar.

Visiting his family in this country annually was, he says, “reverse culture shock. There’s the extreme level of development and the materialism. And every time I come back, the bloody traffic’s worse.

“America seems a land of abundance that’s taken for granted,” he adds. “The contrast between here and Tanzania is shocking.”

He’s not quite out of Africa yet: Having returned there from Kosovo last year to work on the Seromba case -- pro bono, due to a U.N. hiring freeze -- he flew back to Tanzania this month and will stay for several weeks to work on both trials.

Still, he’s excited to be back in his hometown and is looking forward to resuming a career in the L.A. legal system. “When I went for a job interview, I visited a courtroom,” he recounts. “The judge was covering the courtroom next door, too, because the other judge was sick. L.A. appears to be one of the highest-volume criminal jurisdictions in the world. A single Superior Court can call 60 cases in a day -- that’s the entire docket of tribunal cases, and it will take 12 years. The training I got here prepared me for my experience there.”

As for now, he is sorting through the effects of his experience overseas, which, inexorably, have left their mark.

“I’ve come to the point where I question myself: Why do we call such crimes inhuman, or inhumane, when genocide seems to be a crime repeated in history by many evil humans?” he reflects. “I find the word ‘inhumane’ a misnomer. Coming so close to so many tragic stories has given me a more heartfelt appreciation of life, and my own mortality.”