Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Expert Witness Testimony Set to Play Increasingly Deleterious Role in Russian Trials

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 12 – Defense lawyers and legal analysts have long criticized the way in which expert testimony is used in Russian courts as the status of expert witnesses used by the state is different and higher than that of others used by the defense, expert witnesses often stray into legal questions beyond their brief, and there is no standard for assessing such witnesses.

            Faced with this criticism domestically and from the European Court of Human Rights, Dmitry Dubrovsky of the Center for Independent Social Research says, the Russian Supreme Court had been moving in the right direction to address these issues. But now it has reversed itself in ways that undermine justice (ridl.io/ru/jekspertiza-v-rossijskih-sudah/).

            At the end of June, the Plenum of the Supreme Court declared that “whenever an expert opinion contains conclusions on the legal assessment of an act or the credibility of the evidence provided by individuals under examination, it cannot be regarded as admissible evidence” (vsrf.ru/documents/own/30189/).

            That represented a positive step, Dubrovsky suggests; but “at the same time,” he notes, “the Supreme Court removed from the [2010] resolution all references to the possibility of engaging specialists ‘to engage in assessing an expert opinion and examining the expert,’ that is, to review evidence provided by experts.”

            As the researcher points out, this action of the court “deprives the defense of an important tool for defending its legal position, although it does allow for the offering of an alternative expert opinion on materials in dispute.” All this has the effect of increasing the status of expert testimony offered by the state and reducing the likelihood that it can or will be questioned.

            According to Dubrovsky, this situation should be remedied by a return to the earlier standard at a minimum and further by a move toward the establishment of minimum scientific standards for expert witnesses and testimony such as exists in other countries where expert testimony has to meet such tests.

            At present, and unlike in almost all other countries, he points out, “there is no step in hearings involving an assessment of the scientific validity of expert evidence” before the trial when the experts investigators and prosecutors play an extremely negative role because the defense cannot challenge them and courts typically accept the experts without question.

            As long as this is the case, the Russian judicial system will remain stacked against those who are charged with crimes, reducing the need for “telephone justice” in which executive branch officials intervene to direct the outcomes of cases. If the state controls the expert witness situation, there is far less need for the latter.

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