ESSAY: Jury Trials Stand at Heart of Judicial Reform

The use of the jury system for five years now in nine Russian regions has sparked a debate over whether we need such system. It would seem to be absurd: What is the argument about? We want Russia to be a civilized country, and that means we need jury trials. But here is a statistic that arouses the opposite emotion in Russians: Juries acquit defendants up to 40 percent of the time, while traditional courts render verdicts of not-guilty only 1 percent of the time.

Opponents of jury trials give examples, such as in Saratov, where two people charged with a triple homicide were sentenced by a jury to serve only two years in prison. Or the example of the Moscow Regional Court, where 12 jurors freed four of the six defendants charged with murdering State Duma Deputy Sergei Skorochkin. The defendants' guilt, in the opinion of the prosecutor, was unquestionable. The remaining two defendants were charged only with kidnapping and given short jail terms. Those who sat in the court were dumbfounded by the verdict: So they kidnapped Skorochkin and then simply abandoned him? Then who killed him? Skorochkin didn't put five bullets in his own head.

At the Skorochkin trial, which lasted 2 1/2 months, the circumstances surrounding his death were presented in detail. Feb. 1, 1995, at midnight in the suburban Moscow town of Zaraisk, people dressed in OMON camouflage burst into Viktor's Place bar. They shouted, "Don't move! We'll shoot without warning!" and forced the patrons to lie on the floor. They announced they were searching for narcotics and took into custody a man who identified himself as a Duma deputy. He was put into a car and driven away.

Skorochkin was not arrested, thanks to the immunity his deputy status gave him. During the eight-month investigation, Skorochkin sold his Zaraisk enterprise, "Spirt," and moved to London with his wife and two children. He returned to Moscow from time to time, and it was on one of those trips that he was kidnapped.

Skorochkin's body was discovered Feb. 2, 1995, alongside a forest belt. He lay on blood-covered snow, with bullet wounds in his head. He had been shot five times at point-blank range. He was found with his foreign-travel passport and eight British pounds. The gangsters had not touched the world's most stable currency. Why, then, was he kidnapped and shot?

A defense lawyer would argue that the deputy was killed as punishment for his earlier crime. But the defendants were accused of being hired killers, to whom the alleged contractor, Lopukhov, planned to pay $300,000. Lopukhov, a businessman who had bought Skorochkin's business for $2 million and still owed him $388,000, admitted he had ordered the killing after he was arrested, but later recanted his confession. Did it make sense for him to pay $300,000 in order to save $88,000? The investigators said it did. In fact, Lopukhov had promised Skorochkin that if he did not repay the $388,000 before Feb. 1, 1995, he would pay 50 percent of the total, $194,000, for each day past the deadline. That is why, according the investigators, Skorochkin was murdered on Feb. 1.

The investigators, looking into Lopukhov's acquaintances, discovered a strange figure - Oleg Lipkin, a commercial middleman who had recently been in the military. Lipkin had helped provide security for Skorochkin's enterprise in 1993, but left after police intervened in a dispute. Investigators said Lopukhov offered Lipkin, who already harbored a grudge against Skorochkin, $300,000 to get rid of his enemy. Lipkin, who was also allegedly part of an extortion racket, gathered a group of his comrades to grab Skorochkin, who had returned from London to pick up his debt payment, at the bar.

This version of events wavered in court. Four out of the six suspects claimed their confessions had been beaten out of them. This was indirectly confirmed by videotaped confessions that appear to have been rehearsed. There were also inconsistencies. Why, for example, were neither buckles nor nails found in the pit where, according to a witness, the camouflage uniforms and boots were burned?

The jury decided these and other "whys" were not proven. Three years of investigative work went down the drain. Prosecutor Sokin, already exhausted from battling the defendants' lawyers, shouted: "Such a court should be dismissed!" His annoyance with the jurors was understandable. They, like juries in other Russian regions, rejected any accusatory argument that aroused the slightest doubts. And people whose membership in the criminal world seemed obvious, but whose guilt in the given case has not been proven, were freed.

All the same, the Supreme Court overturned the Moscow Regional Court's decision in the Skorochkin murder case because of a serious violation. During a break between court sessions, a senior juror asked a lawyer, who was representing Lipkin, if she could use his mobile phone to call home. (The phones in the court at that time had been disconnected because of unpaid bills.) Her unauthorized contact with the lawyer was seen as evidence that the jurors had "lost objectivity."

Despite such problems, trial by jury is obviously superior. Jurors are genuinely independent. One of the arguments against a jury trial is that it is made up of people with no experience in jurisprudence and whose opinions are usually based on emotions. But that is what the adversarial concept is for - so that inexperienced, and thus unbiased people can follow the polemics of the opposing sides and render an independent verdict.

Some critics of the jury system for Russia argue that jurors in the United States identify with law enforcement, while Russians identify with those in conflict with the law. But the majority of legal professionals with whom I discussed the issue disagree. Jurors in all countries identify with society, but there is a greater gap between the authorities and society in Russia than in a law-based state. A jury trial gets closer to notions of overall fairness.

The jurors in the Skorochkin case clearly deserved to be dismissed and replaced in order to prevent the idea of jury trials in general from being compromised. Having direct access to jurors is a direct violation of the law. Jurors should be located in a closed spot, such as a hotel, and prevented from meeting outsiders or being influenced by the media coverage of their particular case.

I am convinced that jury trials are the heart of judicial reform and will force a radical improvement in the quality of preliminary investigation and the defense. It is an alternative to our all too frequently inquisitorial investigative and court processes. It will save us from the accusatory slant that our justice system consistentlycarries. It, and only it, can become the guarantee that the rule of law will be observed in our still far from law-based state.

Igor Gamayunov is a correspondent for Literaturnaya Gazeta. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.