Russia, Where Jury Trial Fulfills a Dream

At a time when the national government is mired in personal and party politics, a murder trial marks a quiet revolution in Russian jurisprudence

THE results of Russia's first multiparty elections were still rolling in when Judge Alexander Galkin entered the courthouse in this Volga River city to preside over another historic landmark: Criminal Case No. 6391.

The case involved a triple-murder charge, but what packed the third-floor courtroom was something else. Case No. 6391 was to be a jury trial, the first since the Bolsheviks banned juries as a ``bourgeois'' legacy shortly after taking power in 1917.

``Distinguished jurors, the defendants have come to this court before you, their co-citizens,'' Judge Galkin stated in his opening instructions as the trial got under way on Dec. 15. ``They hope you will be fair, and free from any influence on the part of the state.'' Looking a bit nervous at first, the nine women and three men on the jury listened attentively. So did legal reformers such as Boris Zolotyukhin, a prime mover in the jury project. ``Today is a holiday for me,'' he said. ``I've dreamed of this since I was a student.''

The defendants, Artur Martynov and his brother Alexander, opted for a jury trial under a pilot project passed by the now-defunct Russian Supreme Soviet. The law, which allows for juries in cases of serious crimes, went into effect on Nov. 1, 1993, in five regions of European Russia - suburban Moscow, Ryazan, Ivanov, Saratov, and Stavropol. Four more regions will be added in January 1994.

Mr. Zolotyukhin and others say the Martynov trial marks a quiet revolution in jurisprudence, at a time when Russia's political and economic reforms are clouded by constant power struggles. ``Jury trial is a change that takes place at the grass roots,'' says Sergei Pashin, who heads the reform unit of the State Legal Administration. ``While they're deciding at the top who will sit in what chair, down below a real event is happening - a demonstration of adherence to a democratic ideal.''

Court reforms like jury trials may be especially timely now in Russia. The ultranationalist party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, which won a surprising victory in the Dec. 12 parliamentary elections, calls for swift, harsh measures against suspected criminals. Mr. Pashin says that juries are helping courts become too independent for that to happen.

Under the lingering Soviet criminal justice system, defendants appear before a tribunal made up of a judge and two ``people's assessors.'' The judge asks most of the questions, and prosecutors act as the sole investigators. Defense lawyers have a minimal role. The lay assessors - defendants call them ``nodders'' - almost always vote with the judge. Not surprisingly, more than 99 percent of cases end in conviction.

THE Martynov brothers, Gypsies who live in the dreary industrial town of Engels across the river from Saratov, faced up to 15 years' imprisonment or the possibility of execution when they entered the courtroom. Prosecutor Vyacheslav Simshin, wearing the quasi-military uniform of his profession, told the jury that on Jan. 25, 1993, the brothers robbed and wantonly murdered three acquaintances in a brutal fight that followed a night of heavy drinking and card playing. The Martynovs testified that the men threatened to kill them, and that Alexander was only defending himself and his brother when he beat the three with an ax handle.

Defense attorney Svetlana Romanova said that her client, Artur, chose a jury trial because he thought his not-guilty plea would ``have a chance,'' despite the possibility of ethnic prejudice. Indeed, the all-Russian jury heard one witness shrug off a request to identify the defendants as his next-door neighbors on the ground that Gypsies ``all look alike.'' Asked how they behaved, he answered: ``They behaved like Gypsies.''

In the end, after three days of testimony, the jury found both defendants guilty of excessive force in self-defense, the rough equivalent of manslaughter. They also recommended partial leniency.

As the defendants embraced, legal observers in the courtroom said they thought the verdict was intelligent and just. Though they stopped short of saying that the usual legal tribunal would have found the Martynovs guilty of first-degree murder, they gave the jury system credit for the prosecutor's decision to soften the indictment midway through the trial. (The new indictment carried possible penalties of only two to 10 years' imprisonment.) ``Juries will force prosecutors to improve the quality of their cases,'' Pashin predicts.

Judge Galkin sentenced Artur Martynov to a year-and-a-half in a work camp; his brother Alexander will serve a year.

Jury foreman Yuri Balashov, a manager in a joint-venture enterprise, said after the trial that he hoped he would not serve again soon. ``To decide guilty or not guilty, it's very difficult,'' he said, as other jurors nodded their agreement. Nevertheless, the panel, which included laborers, an auto mechanic, and a piano teacher, reached their unanimous verdict after only two hours of deliberation.

Under the law, jurors, picked at random from the voting rolls, must be from 25 to 70 years old and free of criminal convictions. For their service, they are paid roughly half of a judge's salary (an average 150,000 rubles, or $150, monthly), courtesy of the Federal budget. During a trial, jurors can ask questions of witnesses (as can defendants, and relatives of the victims). Jurors do not have to deliver a unanimous verdict; a majority rules. A 6-6 vote results in acquittal.

S local newspapers in Saratov began to write about the impending jury trial, some readers called to volunteer as jurors. ``People who love detective stories, that sort of thing,'' said Marina Biryukova, a journalist for the daily Saratov, describing the volunteers.

But other residents seemed wary. ``I would be scared to be a jury member on a criminal trial,'' said a local physician worried about local crime. ``Afraid that the mafia would interfere with my decision.''

To prepare for jury trial, defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges from Russia's new jury-trial regions have taken courses and watched mock trials at the Russian Legal Academy in Moscow. About 75 judges and lawyers have visited the United States to see juries at work under a US Agency for International Development program.

Judge Galkin, wearing a judicial robe for the first time, seemed to adapt easily to his new role as referee. He frequently reprimanded both sides for improper questions, sometimes supplying the correct phrase himself. He spoke sharply to the prosecutor, who, perhaps accustomed to more clout in the courtroom, demanded to read some evidence aloud. ``You demand?'' snapped the judge. ``You'd better make a motion, instead.''

STILL, a collective lack of experience showed at Saratov. There was no verbatim transcript of the trial. Neither the defense nor the prosecution thought to make diagrams or maps to help jurors visualize an extremely complicated web of events that may or may not have occurred during the night in question. ``It's our first experience with juries,'' says Yevgeny Ciderenko, deputy justice minister for reform. ``Later, we'll have such things.''

Jury trial first appeared in Russia as part of Czar Alexander II's great legal reforms of 1864, soon after the liberation of the serfs. Then, as now, juries were phased in gradually. The Bolsheviks outlawed juries shortly after the Revolution. ``They needed an obedient court - fast, unjust,'' said Igor Petrukhin, a law professor at the Institute of State and Law and an early proponent of jury trial.

The criminal court system set up by the Bolsheviks essentially survives today, and is widely regarded as pro-prosecution. Defendants only recently got the right, under a habeas corpus law, to appeal their arrests.

``It's no secret that prosecutors are often criticized by the mass media these days,'' Mr. Simshin, the prosecutor, admits. The task he set himself in the Martynov case ``was to convince the jury that I'm a different prosecutor from the kind they're used to.''

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