Staunton, April 12 – For Russians accused of crimes, juries, “an institution of direct democracy,” are quite often “the last hope of the accused” because juries are far more likely to return not guilty verdicts than are judges, according to Sergey Pashin, a retired federal judge in the Russian Federation.
Juries but not judges often will acquit if they see extenuating circumstances that explain why the individual acted as he or she did while judges at most will typically view those circumstances only as the basis for softening the punishments they will then impose anyway, Pashin says (ng.ru/kartblansh/2022-04-12/3_8415_kb.html).
Thus, recently a jury in Siberia found a woman not guilty of killing her husband because she had been subject to abuse for more than a decade. Had a judge heard her case, the best she could have hoped for was a conviction for murder but a lesser time behind bars, the retired judge explains.
That is why “the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation sees in jury trials a form of direct democracy which has ‘special constitutional and legal importance.’” The right to trial by jury is enshrined in the second article of the Constitution, one of the portions of that document which is the most difficult to change.
But that has not prevented the authorities from seeking to limit the application of its principles. They are interested in convictions which judges give rather than justice which is what juries are more likely do. Last year, juries found 32 percent of the defendants they examined not guilty; judges found only 0.5 percent innocent of the crimes they were charged with.
Unfortunately, Pashin says, the system of jury trials faces two serious problems. On the one hand, the authorities restrict the kinds of cases juries can hear and thus the number of people who actually have a chance for the justice they offer. And on the other, because trials often drag out for a long time, many don’t want to serve.
And that second problem is increasing: In 1994, 92 percent of those called to jury duty showed up. Now, “in the best case,” the retired judge says, only about five percent of them do so. That makes composing a jury difficult if not impossible and often means that defendants will choose a jury trial in order to have their cases resolved more quickly if not more justly.
Pashin urges those called for jury duty not to reject “this rare opportunity to study the domestic legal system from the inside. Judge for yourselves,” he says.