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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

First Moscow Jury Rules 'Not Guilty'

The first jury trial at the Moscow City Court landed a rare not-guilty verdict for a 25-year-old murder suspect last week, as the constitutionally guaranteed right of citizens to be tried by a jury was introduced in the capital.

After five hours of heated discussion, the jury of 12 Muscovites, most of whom were housewives and pensioners, ruled that there was not enough evidence to convict Igor Bortnikov of the death of Andrei Shepenkov, 26, who was found strangled near his garage in October 2001. The jury, however, did find Bortnikov guilty of robbing Shepenkov, handing him 10 years in prison.

The trial was a completely new experience for Judge Pyotr Shtunder, the defense council and the entire personnel of the Moscow City Court. Three courtrooms were recently redesigned to accommodate jury boxes.

"You have done everything right," Shtunder told the jury after the seven-day trial. "This was a good example of ordinary citizens participating in justice."

The trial also served as a model for the Moscow City Court; many judges attended the hearings as spectators.

To the surprise of those accustomed to the sedentary nature of courts inherited from the Soviet times, both the prosecutor and defense attorney walked around the courtroom and gestured during the trial. They addressed the jurors and urged them to use their life experiences when making their decision.

"I am deeply satisfied that the jurors managed to get to the bottom of the case and did not bend under the pressure they experienced from the judge," said defense counsel Vladimir Zherebyonkov, who insisted that Bortnikov be tried by jurors since his case was complicated.

Russian courts are often criticized for being biased, and incidences of judges handing down guilty verdicts to defendants under pressure from prosecutors are widespread.

Zherebyonkov said the responsibility placed on the jurors was enormous and that in a regular court, Bortnikov would have been all but guaranteed a conviction.

Bortnikov was charged with robbing and murdering Shepenkov. Shepenkov's Mercedes 124-200E sedan and two cellphones were missing.

Bortnikov admitted to participating in the robbery with three other men, but he insisted that he did not kill Shepenkov. Two of his accomplices earlier were convicted of robbery, while the fourth suspect remains at large.

Prosecutors said Bortnikov strangled Shepenkov to get hold of the keys to his car, but Zherebyonkov maintained there was no solid evidence against his client. Zherebyonkov also argued that Bortnikov had no murder motive since, unlike his accomplices in the robbery, he received none of the stolen items.

Prosecutors refused to comment after the trial other than to say they would appeal.

Before the trial, 45 jury candidates were picked randomly by computer from a list of registered voters in Moscow. By law, jurors must be older than 25, have no previous criminal record and be mentally sound. Each jurist receives 100 rubles per day plus public transportation expenses.

The judge, prosecutors and defense council spent several days selecting the 12 main jurors and four alternates. The youngest juror was 34; the oldest 61.

Zherebyonkov said 15 of the 45 candidates told the court when they reported for jury duty Aug. 1 that they could not serve because they had to be at work. One man said he had been mugged himself and could not guarantee his objectivity. Several other candidates were let go after they said they had relatives who worked in law enforcement.

The judge ordered the jurors to keep a low profile throughout the trial to avoid any pressure while deliberating on a verdict. The verdict was announced late Wednesday and the sentence on Thursday.

After the trial, some jurors acknowledged that they felt relieved.

Juror No. 2, Natalya, 48, a doctor with a Moscow ambulance service, was initially reluctant to discuss the trial. She said the process had left her physically and mentally exhausted. A mother of three, she had to skip three days of work to attend the trial.

"Persuading several of our jurors was the hardest," she said. "They were very stubborn and spiteful. I am so glad that we saved the boy from a murder conviction. It was so obvious that there was no direct evidence that he was the one who killed the man."

Juror No. 4, a 34-year-old housewife who declined to give her name, said that she agreed to jury duty out of curiosity. But she came out of the trial with mixed feelings.

"There was a moment when I thought that I was about to collapse," she said, explaining her shock at hearing the description of the murder in the courtroom. "I wanted to participate because I wanted a fair decision."

Unlike Natalya, Juror No. 4 left the proceedings unconvinced that Bortnikov was innocent of the charge. But she agreed that there was no solid evidence against him.

The overall acquittal rate is expected to increase now that defendants have the right to be tried by a jury.

The acquittal rate in jury trials is around 18 percent, NTV television reported. Courts usually acquit less than 1 percent of all defendants.

"This is a type of court that cannot be corrupted," Sergei Vitsin, the presidential adviser on improving the justice system, told NTV. "I personally do not see any way to bribe 12 jurors and their substitutes."

The 1993 Constitution provides for jury trials, which have been employed on an experimental basis over the past decade in nine regions, including the Moscow region. Boris Lokteonov, a prosecutor in Bortnikov's case, said he has taken part in 90 jury trials in the Moscow region.

The law on jury trials came into effect nationwide on July 1, and it took the Moscow City Court another month to equip the three courtrooms for jury trials. Jury trials are to be introduced throughout the country by 2007.

In Moscow, 93,000 people already have been selected for future jury trials.

Jury trials existed in Russia before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution but were abolished afterward. One of the best-known examples of a jury-trial decision in pre-revolutionary history is the case of Vera Zasulich, a revolutionary who in 1878 shot and wounded St. Petersburg Governor Fyodor Trepov. She was acquitted by the jury and later went on to co-lead one of Russia's first Marxist organizations, the Liberation of Labor.