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In Russia, Juries Must Try, Try Again

Panels saw 46% of their acquittals reversed last year. The fledgling system has some bugs.

September 30, 2006|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

ASTRAKHAN, Russia — When a bomb killed eight people at a busy marketplace on a steamy summer afternoon here five years ago, police quickly solved the case, as they often do with spectacular efficiency in Russia.

A composite drawing of a mysterious woman seen at the market that day was distributed, and a local drunk who vaguely resembled her was soon arrested. One of her former lovers was hauled in next, and then a few ne'er-do-wells he knew.

Soon the police had four confessions -- all pointing the finger at a wealthy businessman who prosecutors say ordered the bombing to scare off elderly competitors.

The jury didn't buy it, finding the businessman's claim that he had been set up by police for refusing to pay bribes much more plausible. All of the defendants were acquitted in late 2003. In a country with no double jeopardy clause, a second trial began 11 months later, but that ended in a mistrial. So did a third. A fourth jury again acquitted the suspects. In April, the Supreme Court upheld the verdict.

But it's not over yet.

Prosecutors have announced they are petitioning for a new trial with the presidium of the Supreme Court, the highest judicial panel in Russia. The businessman, Magomed Isakov, has come to believe that he will simply be tried until he is found guilty.

"When they acquitted me the last time, I thought my heart would stop," Isakov said in an interview at his home, to which he returned this summer after more than four years of on-and-off imprisonment. "The whole courtroom was crying, even the jurors.

"But I'm sure they will keep appealing. The police, the prosecutors got so many awards for this. Lots of people were decorated for solving this case. They don't want to stop."

More than a decade after the Soviet-era judicial system was overhauled, jury trials in Russia are still a work in progress.

Panels are selected in an opaque process that sometimes produces juries with visible links to the security services. Jury instructions and verdict forms can be worded to leave no realistic alternative but conviction. On the other hand, bribery and threats are still so much a part of the Russian justice system that no one can guarantee that jurors are not being influenced to acquit the guilty, legal experts say.

It has been a slow transition from the Soviet-era judicial system, in which there were no jury trials and courts largely carried out the will of the government. Of 1.1 million criminal cases tried in Russia last year, only 600 were decided by juries; the institution will not be fully in place nationwide until 2007. Jurors acquitted defendants in 18% of the cases they decided. Defendants tried by judges were found not guilty in 3% of the cases.

Under laws allowing jury acquittals to be set aside in cases where serious legal violations occur during trial, the Supreme Court last year reversed 46% of the acquittals and ordered new trials.

Russian jurors are growing increasingly vocal, especially those who may have spent months hearing evidence in a case only to see their acquittal reversed by what many see as a flimsy pretext by the prosecution.

Earlier this year, the Novaya Gazeta newspaper published an open letter to President Vladimir V. Putin from members of two juries that had considered the case of two Moscow businessmen charged with fraud and smuggling. Jurors decided the case had been triggered by business rivals.

The first trial ended in a mistrial after some jurors said they had been offered bribes to convict the defendants, the letter said. The second jury acquitted the men, but the verdict was appealed. In January, the defendants entered their fifth year in custody by going on trial a third time.

After the acquittal in the second trial, the jurors complained, "the prosecutor opined that 'Russia wasn't ready for jurors.' Well, she is entitled to her opinion. But there's a constitution, and there are jurors like us who don't think so at all.

"Dear Mr. President, can you please explain why this prosecutor wasn't fired after declaring that 'the jurors freed smugglers'? Or is it really the prosecutor who makes the decision on whether the defendant is guilty? If so, why did we spend eight long months studying all the smallest details of this case, and why did we vote for the verdict?"

Defense lawyers and legal experts said jury acquittals most often result not from renegade juries, but from poorly prepared police investigators and prosecutors unaccustomed to having to make a real case. Another factor, they said, is a public so familiar with police abuses that it tends to believe defendants when they say they were forced to confess.

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