Russia embraces trial by peers

A constitutional right since 1993, jury trials are expected to be standard all over the country by 2007.

It's an hour after starting time on the second day of Denis Baryshnikov's murder trial, and the courtroom near Moscow's Barrikadnaya metro station is in pandemonium.

Surveying the 12 black office chairs arranged along one gray wall and noting an empty seat, Judge Lyubov Brikalova vents her frustration at the fledgling jury system before adjourning last Friday's session. "Where is juror No. 5?," she demands of the court clerks. "This is like a kindergarten - no, it's more like a nursery. And now they want to introduce this bedlam into the whole country?"

Despite such inauspicious beginnings and widespread skepticism from Russia's conservative judges and prosecutors, the Western practice of trial by a panel of peers is being extended to a quarter of Russian regions this year. It is expected to be standard across the country by 2007. The return of juries to Russian courtrooms - after an absence of almost a century - is intended to help restore public faith in a widely distrusted judicial system by making criminal trials more open and fair. The reform was the cornerstone of a sweeping judicial package passed by the State Duma last year.

"Jury trials are certainly cumbersome and more expensive to stage, but the results are better," says Vladimir Tumanov, a former chairman of Russia's Constitutional Court. "The demands of evidence are much higher, and prosecutors have to work hard to prove the defendant's guilt. As a result, jury trials lead much more often to 'not guilty' verdicts."

Jury trials have been legal for a decade under Russia's 1993 Constitution, and experiments have been going on in a handful of Russian regions since then. A significant widening of the practice last year is already being credited with doubling the total acquittal rate, for all types of trials, from .4 percent of all defendants - where it has hovered for most of the past decade - to .8 percent.

In jury trials, Russian jurors, like their Western counterparts, free an average 15 percent of defendants. (In the US, where juries are common, the acquittal rate is 17 percent).

Russian justice wasn't always a seemingly inevitable march from arrest to prison sentence. In the 19th century, a thriving jury system absolved almost a third of all defendants. But the legacy of the Soviet system, in which a working compact among investigators, prosecutors and judges combined with a firm presumption that anyone accused by the state must be guilty, still weighs heavily on Russia's courts.

It took almost a decade for the Duma to pass a law mandating nationwide introduction of juries. "There has been fierce resistance from judges and prosecutors," says Sergei Pashin, a former judge who works as a legal specialist with the Helsinki Group, a human rights watchdog. Most Russian regions are still dragging their heels on introducing the jury system, with local authorities often citing a lack of funds to install jury rooms and pay the 100 rouble (about $3) daily juror pay. But Mr. Pashin says the main problem is lack of political will. "Basically we are dealing with people who do not understand this reform and do not want it."

Even in those regions that are introducing jury trials, they are available only for a handful of serious crimes, including murder, corruption, and treason.

Mr. Baryshnikov is charged with participating in a killing during a car theft. The jurors in his case are mainly pensioners and unemployed people. Citizens with jobs tend to beg off jury duty or, like the truant juror No. 5, disappear after a day or so.

His attorney, Yelena Bondarenko, complains that the court has forbidden her to mention her client's claim that his confession was coerced, because a police commission concluded that his facial injuries were the result of a "fall down stairs." The judge has ordered Bondarenko to stick to "proven facts" only. Nor is she permitted to bring up any mitigating circumstances, such as his disabled parents' dependence on him for support or the fact that this is his first brush with the law. "In a regular court, I could raise these issues with the judge," says Ms. Bondarenko, who had counseled her client against requesting a jury trial. "I doubt that a jury comprised of laymen is able to take in all the complexities of this case and understand it."

Her attitude is mirrored by Judge Brikalova. "I was very enthusiastic at the beginning," she says. "But now I realize that if I had to face a court myself, I would never ask for a jury trial, because they are totally unpredictable."

Other senior jurists offer harsher statements. "I think jury trials are an anachronism designed for people who want to evade responsibility," Vladislav Postogonov, a judge in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don told the liberal magazine Ogonyok. And Natalya Reshetova, a top official with the General Prosecutor's office in Moscow, complained that juries "act from emotion rather than common sense ... People tend to see the defendant as a victim of state oppression, to sympathize with him as the underdog, and the acquittals they hand down are not justice but just a kind of protest."

But others say that even Russia's limited experience with the new system shows that it works better than the judge-dominated courtrooms inherited from the Soviet Union. "The fear that juries would act on their first impressions or emotional sympathies have proven groundless," says Olga Solovyeva, a sociologist at Moscow State University who has been studying jury trials since the first experimental one was held in Russia in 1994.

For one thing, she says, jurors demand to see evidence. "Russian criminal investigators have this saying that "confession is the queen of evidence," and once they have extracted a confession they don't bother probing much further. But juries don't accept that. They want to see the murder weapon, hear the opinions of experts, and be told the results of scientific tests taken at the crime scene, and so on. It's a whole new courtroom."

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