For Russians, a trial run

Court: Mock proceedings allow visitors to observe American jurisprudence before the Soviet-style system is replaced.

October 15, 2002|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

The crime was make-believe and the proceedings were rushed and incomplete, but for the six Russian judicial officials sitting in a Howard County jury box yesterday, the mock trial still offered an enlightening glimpse at the future.

This bit of theater - complete with lawyerly posturing and pacing, attacks on credibility and a judge who managed to stay above the fray - was intended to give the Russians a chance to observe the workings of an American trial by jury as they prepare to launch their own jury system. They came away impressed and sobered by the challenge that lies ahead.

"I won't be able to forget what I saw today, the first time put in a jury box," St. Petersburg lawyer Yevgeniy V. Semenyako said through an interpreter.

Trials by jury are to begin in Russia early next year, after years of experimentation. The six - two judges, two prosecutors and two private lawyers - were focused on the nuances of a judicial process foreign to most of their countrymen.

"Psychologically, mentally, not everyone in our country is ready for changes to the system," said Sergey V. Narizhniy, chief judge in a Leningrad regional court, also through an interpreter.

The six who visited Howard County yesterday are members of a contingent of 64 judges, lawyers and facilitators visiting seven American states this week.

They were in Maryland courtesy of the Washington-based Open World Program, which brings Russian officials to the United States to learn about American justice, democracy and economics.

This week, the group will watch a federal bank robbery trial in Baltimore and rub elbows with lawyers and judges.

The start of jury trials in all of Russia's 89 regions is part of a judicial reform package signed by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, Open World officials said.

Jury trials have been tested in nine of Russia's regions since 1993, but the rest of the country has continued to use the system put into place after the Bolsheviks took control of the country in 1917 - decision-making by a judge and two assistants.

"They're doing in leaps and bounds what we did over 200 years and they're doing it in 10," said Lewis Madanick, a program manager for Open World.

Madanick and others said they expect the introduction of the jury system won't be easy.

"I assume you've seen American movies, and you've seen cross-examination in the movies where the witness breaks down and cries and admits he accused an innocent man," U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis told the group. "That doesn't happen."

An important part of the process will be educating Russian citizens, said Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Alan M. Wilner, one of the hosts of this week's visit and a participant in exchanges with the St. Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast regions since 1996.

"It's just not part of the culture. They have a terrible time getting people to show up as jurors," Wilner said. People "don't understand it's not only an obligation of citizenship, it's a privilege of citizenship."

But yesterday's focus wasn't on teaching good citizenship. Rather, the six, all from St. Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast, were shown the details of jury selection and the trial process - from selecting a jury pool at random to closing arguments and deliberations.

Interspersed throughout the staged scenario - complete with witnesses and evidence - lawyers and judges interjected bits of advice and know-how.

At the end of the day, the Russians said they were surprised how serious the American judges and lawyers who took part in the mock trial were about their roles.

"Sometimes, it seemed like a real case," Semenyako said.

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