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July|August 2004
Crash Course By Jascha Hoffman
Rundown Jury By Noel C. Paul
On Your Marks. Set. Go Home! By Dana Mulhauser
World's Richest Bailiff By Brendan I. Koerner
Cases & Controversies
The Prudent Jurist By William H. Simon

Rundown Jury

Twelve not-so-angry Russians.

By Noel C. Paul

FACING TRIAL FOR MURDER IN IVANOVO, a dreary city 165 miles northeast of Moscow, Vladimir Novikov made a bet that's familiar to Americans: He gambled that 12 sleepy-looking pensioners would show him mercy. A thin, hunched 20-year-old, Novikov had been charged with killing an army soldier. He requested a jury, his lawyer said, because he thought his peers would be more receptive to his story than a judge would. Novikov said that the murdered soldier had sexually abused a new young recruit, one of Novikov's two co-defendants in the case. The three had tried to intimidate the victim by holding a knife to his throat, and killed him, they said, by mistake.

Ten years ago, as the old Soviet system collapsed, American officials in the State Department and other agencies eagerly exported the jury system to Russian courtrooms. Taking the power to convict away from judges, who often assumed the guilt of the accused, was supposed to give defendants a fairer shot.

But the dozen men and women who shuffled into the jury box in Ivanovo didn't get much chance to do that. After the prosecutor's opening statement, the defense lawyer, Oleg Sperantskii, rose to the podium. "The prosecutor has read these charges in a very cold way," he said, clasping his hands above his waist. Like snow, "in a few weeks the words the prosecutor said will melt away and nothing will be left after it."

Sperantskii said later that he'd gotten his style "from the American guys"—the presenters at American Bar Association seminars he'd attended in the United States. But his flight of fancy didn't impress the presiding judge, Irina Chumina. "You are influencing the jury with your sad stories!" Chumina rebuked him.

A chastised Sperantskii hurried through the rest of his remarks. Later, the defense team regained enough ground to object successfully to evidence that police investigators had collected illegally. But Chumina put her thumb on the scale by reminding the prosecutor about other evidence that he'd neglected to introduce. She also nudged him to call a forgotten witness in the trial. "I was trying to give him hints," she explained after.

The closing statement for the defense was delivered by Sergei Salapin, a babyfaced defense attorney who prefaced his remarks by begging the jurors' indulgence of his youth. When Salapin described how the victim had threatened the young defendant into giving oral sex, Chumina broke in to give her version of a key fact.

"No, I think that is not correct," Salapin told her.

"You are not permitted to speak to me in such a tone," Chumina answered.

A third defense lawyer, Vladimir Derbyshev, rose and waved a copy of Russia's new criminal procedure code over his head. "You're not allowed to interrupt," he shouted at the judge. "It says here you are not allowed to do this."

"You cannot speak to me like this!" Chumina shouted back, shaking her fist at the defense table.

Juries came to Russia by way of popular referendum, and from the start they've been viewed by most prosecutors and judges as a threat to law and order. Those fears gained ground when the rate of acquittal across the country jumped from half a percent during the Soviet era to about 20 percent in 1997, three years after the jury was introduced. (Or, rather, reintroduced: Russia experimented with juries for more than half a century leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.)

By last year, the rate of jury acquittals had fallen to 15 percent. Though the same percentage of defendants are acquitted in federal jury trials in the U.S., American experts consider the Russian rate suspect given that trials there are more often based on slim or questionable evidence.

The drop may be due in part to the panic many Russians feel about the crime sprees that began in the late 1990s. Juries hear cases only of murder, serious fraud, and assault. They may care less about procedural niceties in the face of rampant hooliganism and unpunished shootings. According to Russia's highest-ranking prosecutor, Vladimir Ustinov, the number of unsolved crimes in the country jumped more than 25 percent last year.

But the decline in acquittals is also explained by trial judges like Chumina who help the prosecution. Russia's highest court generally gives these jurists free rein. Last year, using technicalities as an excuse much of the time, the court reversed one-third of all jury acquittals.

Now the Russian Supreme Court is lobbying for a law that would limit jury trials to cases of murder. Russia's parliament, no friend of the jury either, is expected to pass the bill sometime this year. The parliament has already taken away the jury's authority to consider a defendant's state of mind in deciding his guilt.

Some citizens continue to extol the jury's virtues. "It is much better if 12 decide rather than one," said Valentina Ivanovna, while waiting to attend a trial outside a Moscow courtroom. "It is important to hear from different walks of life." But others aren't so sure. A day of jury service pays just 150 rubles, or about $5. Russian law requires businesses to give their employees paid time off to serve when they're called, but few employers take the mandate seriously. So the task falls mostly to the elderly and the unemployed. "This is not very prestigious," sighed Vayseheslav Gusev, who served as an alternate juror at Novikov's trial. "I had difficulties at work."

The jury's deliberations in the case took about two hours and ended in a guilty verdict for all three defendants. In this part of Russia at least, there's no need to worry about runaway acquittals: In the last six years, Ivanovo juries have acquitted only four accused in more than 200 cases. The chief prosecutor for the region calls that "an acceptable percentage of failure."

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