Historic jury trial begins in Russia

December 16, 1993|By Cox News Service

SARATOV, Russia -- Rising to take their oath, 12 citizens of this Volga River region made history yesterday as criminal case No. 6391 began in the courtroom of Judge Alexander Galkin.

The nine women and three men are jurors in Russia's first jury trial in 75 years.

"Today is a historic session," Judge Galkin announced as he explained the presence of journalists to defendants in the case.

Artur Martinov, 21, and Alexander Martinov, 23, accused jointly of a triple ax murder, chose trial by jury under a pilot project approved in July by Russia's old parliament.

Under the Soviet system, defendants usually appear before a legal tribunal that acts as both judge and jury. Recent conviction rates under the lingering system run around 99 percent.

If convicted, the Martinov brothers, Gypsies who live in the dreary industrial town of Engels across the river from Saratov, could face the death penalty. They are accused of killing three Russians in a private home after an evening of drinking and playing cards.

Defense attorney Svetlana Romanova acknowledged that prejudice against Gypsies could be a problem.

But Ms. Romanova says her client, Artur Martinov, chose a jury because he wants his not-guilty plea to get "every chance possible."

The jury law, which went into effect Nov. 1 in five regions of European Russia -- from suburban Moscow to Stavropol -- passed after two years of lobbying by legal reformers. They believe that jury trial is the only way to reverse decades of injustice under the Communist-run court system.

To give court professionals lessons in everything from jury selection to trial strategy, the Russian Legal Academy in Moscow has offered short courses that include mock trials, some performed by American jurists. About 75 Russian judges and lawyers have visited the United States to witness jury trials firsthand under a U.S. AID project.

Russian jurors can question witnesses and recommend mercy if they deliver a guilty verdict. The verdict itself need not be unanimous, though jurors must try for unanimity during the first three hours of deliberation. After that, majority rules.

A 6-6 vote results in acquittal.

Jury trials first appeared in Russia soon after the serfs were liberated, as part of Czar Alexander II's legal reform of 1864. Then, as now, juries were introduced gradually throughout the country.

The Bolsheviks outlawed jury trials shortly after they took power in 1917. The three-judge court system instituted by the Bolsheviks essentially survives today.

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