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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FACES & VOICES: A Guilty Plea May Save You Eons in Hell




Imagine you are a 40-something family man from Syas, a tiny town 200 kilometers east of St. Petersburg. You work at a state factory and you haven't been paid for years.


Imagine you were jailed by police on suspicion of stealing a bucket of potatoes from a farm field - something you are totally innocent of. You can't tell the Constitution from the criminal code and you can't afford an attorney. So you take what the police investigators offer you for free: their drinking buddy, a former cop-turned-defense lawyer.


Imagine then, that you are thrown into one of St. Petersburg's bursting pretrial holding pens - say, the notorious Kresty. Your appeals to meet with your wife are refused again and again - but she can't afford the trip to see you anyway.


The judges are overworked and you wait to get your day in court, sleeping in shifts with eight inmates in a cell designed for three. You are fed exclusively rice, bread and tea. During interrogations, investigators beat you and tell you to confess. Back in the cell, you are repeatedly raped by your fellow cellmates.


Two years pass. The police are no closer to proving that you stole those potatoes than they were on day one. Finally you go to court. Prior to the hearings, you are informed by your lawyer that if you simply plead guilty to the judge, you'll get three years in a labor camp and a bed of your own. If you want to fight it - well, you can always be jammed into the Kresty cell for two more years of hell trying to prove your innocence.


At the moment, suspects don't have this recourse. By law, the court has to examine every detail of your case even if you've pleaded guilty, a process that takes months. And every day as you return from the courthouse to jail in a police van, your escort is likely to deliver a kick to your liver for each wrong word you've spoken in court.


But St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev is to willing to give you a ticket out. Earlier this year, he prepared an amendment to the criminal procedure code, now headed for the Duma, under which a guilty plea is enough for an instant conviction. Just say "guilty" when asked, and you will be dismissed from your stinking sex-starved cellmates to the freedom of a labor camp. Of course, no one will bother to examine the facts of your case, maybe noticing along the way that you are innocent. But what would you choose?


A very skillful St. Petersburg human rights lawyer appraised the proposed amendment for me. He was behind it, noting that guilty pleas during interrogation are usually the result of coercion, where in court a brutalized defendant will speak up about the torture he's faced in custody, and certainly won't incriminate himself.


But my dear attorney, you're lucky because you're good. Your profound legal skills get your innocent clients out of pretrial detention on bail. Furthermore, your clients are the cream of the intelligentsia who know their rights.


But Kresty is packed with thousands of illiterates from Syas who simply cannot afford your services. Oh, and I almost forgot - according to Yakovlev, a guilty verdict rendered as the result of a courtroom guilty plea would not be appealable.


In other words, so long!


Helen Womack is on vacation.