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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

3 Men Appeal for Trial by Jury

Three men tried for murder, convicted and sentenced to death by judges are asking the Constitutional Court for the right to be retried by juries - a right guaranteed by the Constitution but ignored in practice.

The Constitutional Court began reviewing the case Thursday, court spokeswoman Anna Malysheva said. She said a ruling was expected in about two weeks.

The court must resolve one of the Constitution's thorny knots - Article 20 says defendants charged with capital crimes have a right to request a trial by their peers, and Article 47 says jury trials are a citizen's right only "where provided for by law."

And the current federal law, enacted by the parliament in early 1993, says that is in only nine of Russia's 89 regions.

"I don't see a contradiction," protested Sergei Pashin, the Moscow judge who filed the inquiry on behalf of the Moscow city court. "It doesn't say in Article 20 what regions can have jury trials. You can either have them in every district, or you can move a trial to a district where they are held."

All three men were tried in regions without juries. The criminal procedural code requires defendants be tried in the region where the crime was committed.

Although they were all sentenced to death at trial, one of the defendants, Vladimir Grizak, was exonerated for lack of evidence after the inquiry was filed with the Constitutional Court. A second, Nikolai Kovalyov, had his sentence reduced to 15 years and the third, Sergei Filatov, remains under sentence of death, though Russia has halted executions as a condition of joining the Council of Europe, a 40-nation human rights organization.

But Filatov and Kovalyov are willing to risk a guilty verdict and a new death sentence from a jury because they say they are innocent, Pashin said.

The chances are good their gamble would pay off. Juries are several times more likely to return verdicts of not guilty even when grisly rapes, murders and other violent crimes appear on the list of charges, say human rights activists. Regular courts, as in Soviet times made up of a professional judge and two "citizen advisers," return acquittals in 0.5 percent to 1 percent of cases.

President Boris Yeltsin last week sent parliament's lower house a draft law legalizing jury trials in 12 more regions. But because the Communist-dominated State Duma is heavily in favor of capital punishment and any other measure it perceives as tough on crime, the deputies are not likely to approve a measure that is certain to bring more acquittals.

Opponents also argue Russia doesn't have the money." The Justice Ministry, the prosecutor's office, and the State Duma all expressed a negative opinion on the inquiry, saying there just isn't material support," Malysheva said. They think "it's an expensive pleasure and Russia doesn't have the money to maintain the existing court system in working condition," she said.

Judge Pashin, who ran Yeltsin's department of court reform until it was abolished, says money isn't the obstacle. "That's just deceit. It's a lack of political will. They can find the money," he says.

As it stands now, only 700 trials per year in the nine districts are decided by juries. Pashin estimates that figure would roughly triple if jury trials were allowed in the entire country.

"There's a fear that the disgraces going on might be brought to light, and a fear on the part of prosecutors who work in jury courts," Pashin said.

Pashin says current investigative practices - from sloppy police work such as failure to question a witness to beating confessions out of defendants - are widespread. These kinds of abuses could plant doubts in jurors' minds about a defendant's guilt or an investigator's competence.

"The prosecutor's office and the police are conducting investigations at such a low professional level that in a modern court that would fully observe right to fair trial and presumption of innocence, a lot of the people charged would have to be acquitted," said Diederik Lohman, who directs the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch.

Judges tend to send cases back for further investigation, giving investigators multiple chances to make up for their mistakes, Lohman said.

The reform drive has lost momentum since the president dissolved the court reform department in 1995, sending Pashin back to the Moscow city bench. Whether jury trials will be permitted in more regions depends in part on the bill Yeltsin sent to parliament last week and in part on the new criminal procedural code, which is being written by the Duma legislative and court reform committee. The committee is chaired by old-guard Communist Anatoly Lukyanov.

The Duma has also balked at repealing the death penalty, despite the government's promise to the Council of Europe that Russia would do so.