#2 - JRL 7065
Knight Ridder Newspapers
February 17, 2003
Russia begins new twist on trials: juries
By Mark McDonald
MOSCOW - Father and son, a thick-necked pair of career criminals who turned a botched burglary into a grisly triple murder, knew they wouldn't have much of a chance in a regular, Soviet-style trial with a Russian judge. Their checkered pasts - and a parade of 81 prosecution witnesses - would see to that.
So Valery Chernishov, a convicted rapist, and his son Denis, a veteran thief and extortionist, decided to request a jury trial - one of the first murder trials by jury ever to be held in Russia.
Jury trials are the latest innovations in what has been a revolutionary overhaul of Russia's Criminal Procedure Code. Used only for serious crimes, jury trials became official throughout the country on Jan. 1.
The old Soviet code, which had been written circa 1961, "belonged to another era," said Elena Snegireva, the judge in the Chernishov case.
"These are historic moments for us, yes, and it's nice to feel like you're part of something big," she said. "I like the democratic feeling of the new code."
Some of the new code's other changes:
- Defendants are now presumed innocent until proved guilty. Previously, quite the opposite was true. Under the old communist code, only one case in 270 resulted in an acquittal. Now, in jury trials, it's about one case in five.
- Suspects must be seen by a judge within 48 hours of arrest.
This reform is expected to reduce what leading human-rights attorney Karinna Moskalenko calls "an absolute plague of torture in the Russian justice system."
"The suspect now has the chance to shout to the judge, `Do you see these bruises and cuts? Do you see how I was questioned?' " said Moskalenko. "This is a GREAT step forward."
- Judges now issue all arrest warrants - arrests are down 33 percent under the new code - and only judges may approve searches and wiretaps. They also now decide on bail. Previously, prosecutors could issue warrants and made all bail decisions.
- All defendants are immediately entitled to an attorney - paid for by the court, if necessary. Any confessions obtained without a suspect's lawyer being present can be challenged and thrown out. Plea-bargaining is also permitted now.
But no plea bargains were offered to the Chernishovs. The robbery of $31,000 at the currency-exchange booth had been too well planned, the three ensuing murders too wanton.
While the jurors brought in a 9-3 guilty verdict - majority rules in the Russian jury system - they also asked the judge to deliver the maximum sentence possible. Since there is a moratorium on the death sentence in Russia, that meant a life sentence for Valery, 25 years for his son.
From her bench, Judge Snegireva told the Chernishovs that "the jurors asked me to give you this sentence. I asked them specifically, and they said 25 and life. I am doing what they asked."
Azanov, the defense lawyer, said it was highly unusual for a Russian judge to explain a sentence. Usually, it's just the facts, ma'am.
"It seems to me she tried to whitewash herself, to shift the responsibility away from herself," Azanov said evenly. "But it must be very hard to announce such sentences."
Pacing in the dingy hallway outside the courtroom, Valery's wife was livid. She turned her anger on the jurors, the judge and the defense lawyers.
"I'll die before my son gets out!" she wailed. "I'll never see my husband again!"
As he was being handcuffed and led away, Valery Chernishov said the trial had not been fair.
"Of course not," he snarled. "I trusted the jurors at first, but then they started to play games. By the end, I only liked two of them."
Still, his attorney knew a jury trial had been their only chance: "If we hadn't had jurors we'd have been 100 percent sure of this sentence from the outset."
Russian judges, attorneys, defendants, the police and prosecutors are all still feeling their way with the new criminal code, some of them delighting in its new freedoms and protections, others bridling at its new restraints and impediments.
Prosecutors complain their hands are tied in gathering evidence and arresting and questioning suspects. Judges complain about being pestered at all hours for arrest warrants or bail hearings. And everyone acknowledges there aren't nearly enough attorneys or judges to meet all the provisions of the new code.
Meanwhile, not-guilty verdicts in jury trials have increased more than 50-fold. Most legal reformers see this as democratic progress. Most law-enforcement officials see it as criminal catch-and-release.
"Trial by jury still has very many enemies in our country," said Moskalenko, the human-rights lawyer. "But these enemies are now losing their hope that jury trials are a silly idea that Russia simply doesn't need.
"They're beginning to understand that jury trials aren't going to just die out. They're a reality - our new reality."