Russia's Juries Give Police an O.J.-Style Rap

IN a regional court here, four small, pale young men with close-shaved heads sit in a battered metal cage opposite the jury seats. They are charged with beating another youth to death for his tape player one night in a Moscow suburb in the summer of 1994. Outside the courtroom, Yelena Snegirova, the judge, says she knows without a doubt that they did it.

But then, Russian judges usually do. In the first half of last year 99.53 percent of all the verdicts in Russian courts were guilty judgments.

Russian justice is still steeped in Soviet tradition where prosecutors ruled. "Our courts have always been part of a repressive system," says Sergei Parshin, a Moscow judge and legal scholar.

But something different is going on in Judge Snegirova's courtroom, where defense attorneys ask to dismiss page after page of testimony - stacked more than a foot high on the judge's desk - because of illegal tactics by investigators. By the time the 12 jurors enter, most of the testimony has been excluded.

In most Russian courts, there are no juries, judges weigh all evidence no matter how it was gathered, and virtually no one who gets to court escapes conviction. Most cases that do not bring conviction are simply sent back for further investigation.

Jury trials, which began returning to Russia two years ago, "are very different," says Snegirova. And they are bringing a different culture of justice with them.

"Only in jury trials is there a real adversarial system," says Judge Parshin. The jury changes the relationships in the courtroom dramatically. Prosecutors have to work much harder to make a case, defense attorneys are much more assertive, and the judge is a neutral referee between two more equal sides.

Russian juries last year convicted 80 percent of the defendants that faced them, a rate similar to American juries, says Dan Matthews, who is working on an American Bar Association project to support Russia's jury system.

Chiefly an Anglo-Saxon institution, the jury system operated in Russia from 1864 until the Bolsheviks took power in 1917. Although the right to a jury trial is guaranteed in Russia's current Constitution, such trials only exist in only nine of the nation's 89 regions. Although criminal defendants are eager to get jury trials, only 1 in about 4,000 criminal trials completed last year was a jury trial.

Although 16 more regions have wanted to adopt jury trials for more than a year, the Russian parliament has not passed enabling legislation. Prosecutors and police oppose the spread of jury trials, which bring fewer convictions. They are also far more expensive and time-consuming than other Russian trials.

Svetlana Marasanova, chief judge of the Moscow regional courts, estimates that jury trials cost at least twice as much as conventional trials. And the Russian prosecutor general, an opponent of the jury system, says they cost seven times more.

About 60 percent of the criminal trials in Judge Marasanova's jurisdiction are jury trials now, and she is worried about losing them for lack of political and financial support. "But we will fight to the end," she says.

As the prosecutor in Snegirova's courtroom is quick to point out, the big difference with jury trials is the result. "A lot more are acquitted without grounds," says Alexandra Zerkova.

Snegirova sees that as a positive factor in encouraging professionalism and fair play throughout the system.

Juries, as a rule, take their responsibilities extremely seriously. If they believe there is not enough evidence to sentence a defendant, they tend to acquit even when they believe him to be guilty. Legal professionals in Russia, adds Snegirova, tend to decide first if the accused is guilty, then look for evidence.

"Now the investigators have to think about procedures," she adds. "It makes the whole chain work more professionally."

"The militia [police] and prosecutors are absolute opponents of jury trials because they have demonstrated the absolute incompetence of investigators," agrees Marasanova. She notes that the best prosecutors are sent to jury trials, and the quality of investigations is improving.

But Ms. Zerkova, the prosecutor in Snegirova's courtroom, argues that the quality of investigations can be improved without jury trials and that juries frequently sympathize too much with the accused. "Our population is not ready for the new task" of serving on juries, she says.

In the case against the young men accused of killing for a tape player, investigators drew a confession from one and interviewed several girls that the fellows had boasted to the next day. They also have a blood-stained jacket one of them wore.

The jury will never hear most of what the girls told the investigators, because most of them are still under 18 and the investigators falsely threatened them with prison if they failed to tell the truth. Some of the interrogation of the young men themselves was thrown out because they were not advised of their rights, they were then under 18, and there was no lawyer present. The trial is expected to last through the month.

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