Russian legal officials come courting

March 23, 1995|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff Writer

Visiting an American courtroom yesterday for the first time, a group of Russian judicial officials sampled views from the lawyers' trial table, the clerk's station and a Baltimore judge's padded chair. They filled the seats in the jury box, and laughed as the translator relayed their question: How do you discourage jurors from snoozing on the job?

Judge Edward J. Angeletti retrieved a red tin, smiled and answered, "We give them a piece of candy in the afternoon. You'd be amazed how effective it is to keep people awake."

It was another tip to be noted by the Russians, who are trying to nurture the growth of jury trials in a land that saw little more than kangaroo courts under decades of Communist rule. Their thirst for ideas has brought them to Baltimore, where they've been schooled on everything from race and gender bias in jury selection to the energizing properties of hard candy.

"We want to know the details. The large and small of it," Dimitri Kazharski, an assistant director in the Russian Ministry of Justice, said through an interpreter.

In Baltimore Circuit Court yesterday, they watched as a jury was selected for a civil case involving a claim of police brutality. Later in their two-week stay, they will get a look at police booking procedures at the city's Central District station, and travel to Washington to see the Supreme Court.

Today they'll get a crash course on justice just as millions of Americans have -- by watching television coverage of the O. J. Simpson trial. They said that Russians have heard only bits and pieces about the case, and that Russians would be reluctant to turn a trial into such a spectacle.

"It is not in our character and not in our culture that these trials be sensationalized," Mr. Kazharski said. "We see it as pressure being put on the court system by the media coverage."

Indeed, little of Russia's 20th century judicial heritage resembles America's. Jury trials were part of the country's pre-Bolshevik justice system but were abolished after the 1917 revolution. During the Communist era, judges were puppets of the party, and they were assisted by lay jurists with so little influence that, according to one news report, no one ever even tried to bribe them.

The Soviet Union's fall and the adoption of a new Russian constitution led to the country's first jury trial in 75 years in December 1993. Nine of the approximately 80 Russian regions, similar to states, now have jury trials. Victor N. Komarov, a former judge and legal expert for Russia's executive branch, said yesterday that up to 12 more regions will have jury trials by 1996, but further expansion depends on available money.

American jurists have traveled to Russia to conduct mock trials and teach trial strategy. Similarly, Russian judges and lawyers have visited America. This week's visit from the dozen jury administrators is the fourth such trip.

The visits were funded by U.S. Agency for International Development grants. The nonprofit Democratic-Russia USA Foundation won a contract to set up the latest visit, said Eugenia Ordynsky, a Baltimore immigration lawyer who is president of the foundation.

Ms. Ordynsky, whose parents were born in what now is Ukraine, said her group won the contract just four days before the Russians were to arrive. The University of Baltimore's new Center for International and Comparative Law joined in to provide lectures and receptions for the visitors.

Yesterday, the jury administrators toured a courthouse lockup and a room set aside for jury deliberations. There, Alexandre Khodakov, a jury administrator from Rostov, seemed surprised to find two decks of playing cards to help jurors occupy their free time.

Despite all the differences they noted between Russian and American justice, the visiting administrators provided one clue that some human traits are universal.

Asked whether their countrymen, like Americans, fumble for excuses to avoid jury duty, the Russians smiled and nodded knowingly as interpreter George Gerich said, "The same thing is in Russia. People try to get out of it."

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