Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Russia's first trial by jury since the Bolshevik revolution recently concluded in Moscow City Court. Taken in the context of the many anti-democratic reforms and measures of the last 3 years, this very modest foray into judicial reform is an important step forward.

For the last decade, judges have enjoyed sole discretion over the accused. As with many civil servants, the judges are very poorly paid and susceptible to bribery. They often aren't educated on nuanced legal reforms or expected to particulary uphold precedent. Defendants in Russian courts are convincted 99.5% of the time, and spend their trials locked in cages in the court room.

Reports from the first jury trial suggest there is plenty of room for improvement: the jury repeatedly failed to rule on all the charges, and had to be sent back to deliberate several times. The cage is still there in the courtroom, with the obvious psychological influence on jurors. And corruption, well, that's a hard nut to crack:
Even the attorneys defending Bortnikov were absorbing alien concepts. Conviction requires a simple majority of jurors here. Told during a break that U.S. juries must rule unanimously, defense attorney Vladimir Zherebenkov seemed astonished and translated that into the Russian context. "Then," he exclaimed, "you only have to buy one."

Furthermore, there's no "double jeopardy" protection as in the states, and a defendant can be re-tried by the state if a jury acquits him.

In the end, the young man accused of murder was acquitted because the jury thought the evidence and confessions were coerced. The jury probably has good reason to suspect this.

Nevertheless, the prosecution will appeal, and can keep doing so until they get the verdict they want. Like I said, it's far from ideal, but it's a start.


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