Kurt Kerns and Melanie Morgan Defend Kansas Man Accused of Genocide

A federal jury trial is underway in Wichita, Kansas that could be the first U.S. criminal case involving the Rwanda genocide.

Wichita's Kurt P. Kerns, of Ariagno, Kerns, Mank & White and a Kansas Super Lawyers listee since 2006, and Melanie Morgan, of Kansas' Morgan Pilate and a listee since 2005, are defending an 84-year-old man, Lazare Kobagaya, currently living in Topeka, whom prosecutors allege participated in the 1994 Rwanda genocide. The U.S. charges are not for participation in the genocide, but prosecutors are trying to prove his participation in order to show he lied on immigration and citizenship documents, in which, according to The Wichita Eagle, he checked a box stating he did not participate in genocide.

The U.S. can't prosecute for crimes committed abroad, but it can nail someone for lying on a naturalization form. If convicted, Kobagaya could be subject to deportation.

The attorneys couldn't comment to us about the case--judge's orders--but before the trial kicked off, Kerns told The Wichita Eagle exactly why he believes accusations of genocide arose against his client in 2009. Kobagaya had testified on behalf of a former neighbor who was prosecuted in Finland for genocide. In the wake of that testimony, the charges surfaced against him.

"For 15 years, this guy's not on anyone's radar," Kerns told the paper. "Then all of a sudden, he became a bad guy, too. His name didn't come up until he gave that interview [on behalf of his neighbor]." The defense attorney reviewed the records of thousands of interviews taken following 1994 Rwanda killings, which are kept at the headquarters of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

A major challenge in the case was locating witnesses in Africa and bringing them to the U.S. The Human Rights Watch fought to withhold information on potential witnesses, citing safety concerns, the paper reports. In the end, the defense and prosecutors were successful--50 witnesses from Africa are expected in the case, including some who have admitted to participating in the killings.

In opening statements, Morgan said of the prosecution, "What they found in the course of their investigation was a group of killers willing to make accusations," according to The New York Times.

Kerns and Morgan are known for this kind of complex, high-profile work. A graduate of the National Criminal Defense College, Kerns is also a student and now staff member of the Gerry Spence's Trial Lawyer's College. He's taken cases involving conspiracy, first-degree murder and fraud.

Morgan is the immediate past president of the Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and has been invited to be part of the faculty of the National Criminal Defense College.

The trial is expected to last 10 weeks.

-Adrienne Schofhauser