September 19, 2003


Russia Tests Juries By Trial and Error: Courts Slowly Shedding Soviet Model (Peter Baker, September 2, 2003, Washington Post )

The first time the jurors came back with their verdict, the judge told them they hadn't done it right. They forgot to rule on one of the charges and made a mess trying to alter the language of one of the others. So he sent them out to try again.

A few minutes later, the jurors came back. The judge looked at their decision, shook his head and pronounced it incomplete again. He sent them back a second time.

And then a third.

And a fourth.

And a fifth.

The rueful jury foreman shrugged his apologies. "It's the first time," he called out. "The first pancake is always messed up."

So it went as the Moscow City Court concluded its first trial by jury since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, finally adopting a concept that only slowly has been reintroduced in Russia over the last decade in a halting effort to transform a judicial system still dominated by a Soviet mentality. Plenty of pancakes have been messed up in Russia's troubled attempt to build civil society, a relationship between rulers and the ruled based on democracy and law. The murder trial of Igor Bortnikov offered a glimpse into why.

Over the course of eight days in Courtroom 331 last month, a retired air force officer, a pipe fitter, an unemployed cook, a few homemakers, several pensioners and an engineer-turned-astrologer struggled with what it meant to be jurors at a time when the Russian state has only reluctantly begun surrendering authority to its people.

They heard the case in a country where historically under czars and communists the rights of the individual were subordinated to the state. Even now, in Russia's incomplete experiment with court reform, the judge still wields considerable influence, juries are permitted to consider only the most serious crimes and their acquittals often are overturned on appeal.

Yet somehow, sometimes, juries filled with men and women who grew up in the Soviet era are pushing back by questioning evidence, forcing the state to justify its conclusions and even reaching their own independent judgments.

"For a person who's never been involved in a court before, of course it's very difficult," conceded the foreman, Alexander Abramov, 61, who was born when the country was run by dictator Joseph Stalin. "There were some bumps. . . . This court reform, this participation of jurors, it seems to me, needs to be perfected."

For more than eight decades, Russians charged with a crime in Moscow were brought shackled into cramped courtrooms, where Communist Party-appointed judges and citizen assessors almost invariably convicted them -- that is, if they received that much due process.

The right to a trial by a jury of one's peers was enshrined in the new Russian constitution in 1993, but in most courts, power has remained in the hands of judges -- who convict defendants 99.5 percent of the time, according to annual Justice Ministry statistics. It has taken 10 years to put the jury concept into practice in the aging headquarters of the Moscow City Court.

The introduction of such notions as the presumption of the defendant's innocence and the prosecutor's burden of proof might give the system a measure of credibility with the Russian people.

Yet change does not come easily.

This is a long, fascinating, somewhat frightening, account of one of Russia's first trials by jury, a right which we take for granted, but which Mr. Baker amply demonstrates is no easy thing to create out of whole cloth.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 19, 2003 12:31 PM

Finally, the Russian people may find the opportunity to truly participate in their governance. May it be so for the Iraqies. But as in Russia, it won't happen overnight. Hear that France ... and Ted Kennedy. My lord, has senility finally caught up with him?

Posted by: genecis at September 19, 2003 8:51 PM