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Jurors’ competencies may be cut again

August 14, 2013, 18:04 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

MOSCOW, August 14 (Itar-Tass) - Russia’s jurors may have their rights restricted again. And it looks like trial by jury, restored in Russia 20 years ago, may become effectively extinct before long. The authorities obviously distrust the professionalism of jurors, and so do ordinary citizens. In the meantime, in the professional community debates are going on unabated whether trial by jury in today’s realities in Russia has more pros or cons.

Russia had jury trials in 1864 through 1917. Then they were reintroduced in 1991-1993. Starting from 1993, defendants began to be tried by jurors in nine regions of Russia, and from January 1, 2010, in all regions.

Of the 818 defendants put on trial by jury in 2012 157 (19%) were acquitted, says the daily Novyie Izvestia. In the meantime, the share of those acquitted by professional judges is already under one percent, which has prompted many to suspect the administration of justice in Russia is conviction-biased. In the meantime, courts in the United States and the European Union acquit up to 30% of those standing trial.

In the near future jurors will be considering far less cases than they have been so far. Pretty soon only exceptionally dangerous felons will be able to hope to be tried by jurors. The State Duma has before it a bill allowing jurors to consider only those criminal cases that may end up with a life term. The measure was proposed to ease the work pressure on courts in the constituent territories of Russia and to delegate the competence of dealing with all cases, except for grave ones, to district courts.

This is not the first attack against jury trials. In 2008 they were prohibited from considering cases of terrorist attacks, forcible seizure of power, armed rebellion and others. And in 2013 the ban was spread to bribes, crimes against justice and crimes on transport.

“The bill concerning jury trials has not been finalized yet," a member of the State Duma’s committee for civil, criminal, arbitration and procedural legislation, Rafael Mardanshin, told the daily Novyie Izvestia."Personally I believe that the powers of such courts should have been expanded, the way it is being done around the world. For instance, if jurors were still in charge of probing into bribery cases, far fewer corrupt officials would now be going unpunished,” he  said.

The same bill may in fact eliminate jury trials altogether, warns Tamara Morshchakova, a retired deputy presiding judge of the Constitutional Court. “Already now jury trials across the nation consider less than one thousand criminal cases a year. In the United States, for instance, any defendant who is faced with the possibility of being put in jail for more than six months has the right to be tried by jurors. In our country, this right may be reserved only for those who may be sentenced to life,” the daily quotes Morshchakova as saying.

Jury trials are so much disliked by many because it is far harder to make them pronounce an expected verdict, says retired federal judge Sergei Pashin. “Jurors are far more demanding and strict in studying evidence than professional judges. Jurors acquit defendants far more often. They seldom ignore sloppy work by investigators and prosecutors. As a result, jury trials have been stripped of most of their competencies. Murder and rape are the sole two frequent grave offences that jury panels are still allowed to deal with.”

Trial by jury has always been, and still is, a target of fierce criticism. Its advocates blame the large numbers of acquittals on poor work by investigators, while its critics claim that jurors are legally incompetent. Many prosecutors and judges see acquittals by jurors as an indicator this mode of administration of justice is unfair.

Many practicing lawyers have come out against it as an irrelevant institution that is also too costly and too emotional.

“I believe that peculiar understanding of law and order and mentality sometimes prevent jurors from approaching a criminal case objectively, impartially,” says a prosecutor in the Tyumen region, Natalya Kazantseva, quoted by the Vslukh.ru website. “We have replicated America’s model of justice, but we have not created any conditions for its adaptation. For instance, jurors are not completely isolated (contrary to what is done in the United States) for the period of court sessions and they can easily fall under the influence of the relatives of either defendants or plaintiffs.”

Defense lawyer Alexander Toropov, in the city of Tyumen, has his own objections against jurors. “The jurors (mostly women) may just feel pity towards a young defendant who may turn out an articulate speaker and ignore testimonies by witnesses who may just look not nice and credible enough.” However, in his opinions, “not guilty” verdicts by jurors are in most cases “consequences of mistakes by unprofessional investigators.”

Many lawyers believe that the jurors’ lack of professionalism and competence is compensated for by competition. Trial by jury is more independent. Theoretically there is a possibility of putting pressures on jurors, but there is hardly any chance of bribing the whole twelve-member panel.

Lawyer Vladimir Zherebyonkov believes that trial by jury is the sole honest way of achieving justice in Russia. “They are normal people aware of their responsibility and capable of resisting pressures.”

“Today this tiny island - jury trials - is probably the sole support the rule of law advocates inside the country’s leadership and the community of professional lawyers may use to go ahead with the struggle for independent courts, first and foremost, from law enforcement agencies, in considering both criminal and civil cases,” says the founder of the Club of Jurors, journalist Leonid Nikitinsky.

In the meantime, most Russians have no trust either in ordinary courts or in jury trials.

A recent Levada Center poll has found 61 percent of respondents sure that any ordinary citizen who may try to turn to court has no hope for a fair ruling. The opposite view is shared by 27 percent of the polled.

As the survey indicates, people are generally skeptical about jury trials - 32 percent argue that it is less competent and experienced and more vulnerable to external influences. Twenty-three percent are certain that such courts are more fair and will be independent in pronouncing acquittals. And one in four said they saw no difference between ordinary courts and jury trials.