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Jury trials in modern Russia

01/28/2010

THE ISCIP ANALYST

(Russian Federation)

An Analytical Review

Volume XVI, Number 7, 28 January 2010

LEGAL ISSUES

Jury trials in modern Russia

On January 1, 2010, jury trials were introduced in Chechnya, the only federal Russian region that did not have this institution. This was the final step in the jury reform process that began in 1993-94, when pilot juries were implemented in nine federal regions before the system expanded to other regions. Jury trials were first implemented in Russia in 1864 and abolished by the Bolshevik government in 1922. (1)

 

The current Russian jury model is a peculiar hybrid of pre-revolutionary Russian, Soviet, and Western criminal procedures. Its distinctive elements are: the lack of jurisdiction over crimes against the state; the absence of the unanimity requirement; a three-hour maximum deliberation period; the option to remand a case back to the prosecution for additional investigation; and the Supreme Court’s right to overturn a verdict (Russian criminal law does not prohibit double jeopardy). Juries have no jurisdiction over civil cases or minor crimes. (2) The jury caseload primarily consists of aggravated murder, racketeering, aggravated (or first degree) bribery, and crimes against justice (such as perjury or obstructing a police officer). (3)

 

Russian juries try approximately 0.05% of all criminal cases and have a 20% acquittal rate, which is approximately twenty times higher than that of traditional courts. (4) Despite the miniscule share of criminal cases that they have tried, juries have gained some notoriety after several widely publicized acquittals. Juries have been criticized as unprofessional and susceptible to emotional and financial pressure by all parties in the criminal process. In one case, two affluent Russian businessmen, Igor Poddubny and Yevgeny Babkov, were charged with possessing $2 million worth of contraband cigarettes, fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy. The first jury was dismissed after the prosecution unsuccessfully attempted to pressure the jurors to reconsider their forthcoming “not guilty” verdict. Members of the second jury, after rendering a “not guilty” verdict, went to a restaurant to celebrate the verdict with one of the defendants, his lawyer, and some members of the first jury. The Supreme Court overturned the verdict, but the third jury issued an acquittal as well, setting the men free after five years of pretrial incarceration. (5)

 

“But who are the judges?” asked playwright Aleksandr Griboedov in 1823. Today, the answer is often “the unemployed, retirees, citizens that fail to disclose their criminal past, and persons prone to alcohol abuse.” Since only 16% of population is willing to participate in a jury, concern has been high that juries are being drawn from pools of citizens susceptible to manipulation and corruption. They may see jury duty as a way to supplement their incomes and are frequently indifferent to the interests of justice. Educated and employed citizens often perceive jury duty as an inadequately compensated waste of time and simply ignore the summons. (6) The absence of a jury sequestration procedure makes jurors yet more prone to corruption. (7) Since there is no unanimity of verdict requirement, it may be sufficient to bribe two or three jurors to influence the majority and ensure a desired verdict. (8)

 

An additional problem contributing to a weak jury pool is that the voter lists from which jury candidates are selected frequently contain incorrect or fraudulent addresses, including those of deceased and fabricated persons. In 2003, when the Moscow Regional Court started assembling potential jury panels, only 60 of the 1200 candidates responded to the summons. (9) Furthermore, the existing procedures for enforcing jury attendance are highly ineffective and even judges prefer not to compel anyone to serve on a jury.

 

The long legacy of Soviet oppression and public distrust of government can also lead jurors to side with defendants. (10)  In order to circumvent this and stay true to the state’s traditional “no acquittals” policy on fighting crime, judges often deliberately commit reversible errors in trials, so that prosecutors will have grounds for appeal if a jury is determined to acquit. Russia’s Supreme Court routinely has been reversing approximately half of all jury acquittals, as opposed to only 5-8% of jury convictions. (11) Opponents of jury trials cite these high rates as evidence of the juries’ purported unprofessionalism. However, further analysis of judicial statistics indicates that jury verdicts usually are overturned because of the failure of the presiding judges to correctly put together verdict forms and/or due to the poor quality of the preliminary investigation. (12) Sometimes these oversights are intentional. “Jurors vote according to conscience, the absence of which is judges’ occupational disease,” comments prominent Russian lawyer Henri Reznik. (13)

 

Prosecutors’ failure to adapt to the demands of the newly institutionalized jury system frequently exacerbates conflict with the old judicial mentality. Russia’s jury verdict form is a complex document, especially in cases involving multiple charges and/or defendants. Traditional prosecutors, who lack public speaking skills and the ability to explain intricate legal concepts to jurors, often receive ambiguous and contradictory answers that result in a subsequent judgment reversal. However, rather than acknowledge a shared responsibility for inconsistent or overturned verdicts, many legal professionals prefer to disparage jurors’ emotional susceptibility. (14)

 

Nevertheless, jurors’ leniency has had some positive influence on criminal legal theory and practice. Legal experts and practitioners acknowledge that the preliminary investigations of criminal cases that later are forwarded to jury trials are carried out more thoroughly and with stricter observance of the law. (15)

 

Currently, 30% of citizens trust juries over judges; 21% trust judges more; the rest either do not have a preference (30%) or consider both forms of judicial proceedings equally trustworthy (19%). Both supporters and opponents of the jury system are dissatisfied with its current performance. Supporters are disappointed that jury trials are becoming increasingly susceptible to manipulation and takeover by the traditional judicial apparatus and practices. Opponents are frustrated with the high acquittal rates and excessive unpredictability of the verdicts. (16) Nevertheless, the current legal framework for jury trials provides for a fairer trial that is in greater compliance with the law and that helps bridge the gap between the judicial system and citizens, who gradually are getting used to the idea of acquittal as a legitimate outcome of a criminal trial.

 

Source Notes:

(1) “Jury trials start functioning in the final region of RF, Chechnya,” RIA Novosti, 31 Dec 09 via http://www.rian.ru/general_jurisdiction/20091231/202473956.html.

(2) See The Criminal Procedure Code of the Russian Federation, Part XII, official text, ConsultantPlus, via http://www.consultant.ru/popular/upkrf/11_56.html#p4349. Last accessed 11 Jan 10.

(3) Oleg Muhin, “Juror, even if he is in doubt, must decide whether the defendant is guilty or not,” Izvestia.Ru, 22 Dec 09 via http://www.izvestia.ru/spb/article3136860.

(4) “Judicial Statistics,” Website of the Judicial Department at the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, via http://www.cdep.ru/index.php?id=5&item=34.

(5) Daria Okuneva, “Acquitting jurors,” Novye izvestiya, 11 May 06 via   http://www.newizv.ru/news/2006-05-11/45958.

(6) Maslovskaya E. V., “Jury trial in contemporary Russia: legal discourse and sociologic analysis,” Vestnik of N.I. Lobachevsky State University of Nizhni Novgorod, 20 May 09 via http://www.unn.ru/pages/issues/vestnik/99999999_West_2009_4/39.pdf.

(7) “Juror, even if he is in doubt,” Izvestia.Ru, Ibid.

(8) “Acquitting jurors,” Novye izvestiya, Ibid.

(9) Vladimir Perekrest, “People’s Femida,” Izvestiya, 2 July 03 via http://www.izvestia.ru/russia/article35615/index.html.

(10) “Jury trial in contemporary Russia,” Vestnik of N.I. Lobachevsky State University of Nizhni Novgorod, Ibid.

(11) “Judicial Statistics,” Website of the Judicial Department at the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, Ibid.

(12) “Jury trial in contemporary Russia,” Vestnik of N.I. Lobachevsky State University of Nizhni Novgorod, Ibid.

(13) Aleksandr Vasiliev, “The most humane court… Jurors, according to prosecutors, are too lenient,” Official Website of the Ombudsman of the Russian Federation, 16 Oct 06 via http://www.ombudsman.gov.ru/dad_2006/dad10/dad430/06.doc.

(14)  “Jury trial in contemporary Russia,” Vestnik of N.I. Lobachevsky State University of Nizhni Novgorod, Ibid.

(15) Popova A. D., “Modern juror: who is he?” Sociologicheskie Issledovaniya, 2004, #12, Russian Academy of Sciences via http://www.ecsocman.edu.ru/images/pubs/2006/06/16/0000279753/012.POPOVA.pdf.

(16) “Jury trial in contemporary Russia,” Vestnik of N.I. Lobachevsky State University of Nizhni Novgorod, Ibid.

 

By Sergei Tokmakov (sergei.tokmakov@gmail.com)

 

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