By Leonid Nikitinsky
Anatomy of Injustice: The Unsolved Killings of Journalists in Russia
The acquittals that juries handed out in the murders of journalists Paul Klebnikov and Anna Politkovskaya defied public expectations. But was that the juries’ fault? Having been involved with the Russian Jurors’ Association for two years now, and having interviewed (not for publication but as part of a selection process for participation in the association) hundreds of former jurors from various regions of Russia, I understand their logic well enough.
Setting attendant circumstances aside (and though they may have existed in the Klebnikov case, I am confident they did not in the Politkovskaya case), when presented with hard evidence of the guilt of defendants, jurors will pronounce them guilty; in the presence of unreliable evidence, they will most likely acquit them. The worst the prosecution can do during a jury trial is lie to the jurors or hide something from them—and in the Politkovskaya case, in which neither triggerman nor mastermind was on trial, that is exactly what happened.
The Novaya Gazeta newsroom, as well as the public in general, accepted the jury verdict with understanding. Moreover, we think this verdict could prevent investigating authorities from pretending that the crime has been “solved.”
I recall one judge’s comment as instructive: “The logic of jurors may not coincide with my own, but it is always present.” Jurors never pull a verdict out of a hat; there is always reasoning behind it. The logic of jurors is that they adamantly—sometimes maybe even forcefully—stand by the presumption of innocence; doubt is construed to the benefit of the defendant. Judges talk about this principle all the time in their opening statements to jurors, but it is the judges in Russia who often “reverse polarity” and, instead of supporting the presumption of innocence (as guaranteed by the Constitution and the Criminal Code), slide to support the presumption of right of the ment, or the police.
This is the gist of how jury trials differ from trials before a judge in Russia today. The trial by jury, unlike other practices borrowed from Western law, caught on in Russia—first in the 19th century and, after a 70-year pause, in the 21st century. Evidently, the jury trial corresponds to the traditional Russian understanding that “law” is a synonym of “justice.” Naturally, the jury trial, like any other complex social institute, has its downsides. The arguments, which are held in Russia quite obdurately, in essence come down to the immemorial question: “What is better (when conditions are not obvious)—to acquit a guilty man or convict an innocent one?”
This question is determined by the political-legal order in the state. In today’s Russia, judges and jurors respond to it differently, and which response we adopt as our own depends on the direction we choose to pursue.
As the initiator of the Jurors’ Association project, I see the jury as the solid foundation upon which we can build independent justice in Russia, through which we can stop the “presumption of right of the ment” and return to the “presumption of innocence.” From my communication with former jurors, I am convinced that serving on a jury is a unique school of civil courage and maturity. It is regrettable that very few serious crimes in Russia—less than 1 percent of all criminal cases pending before the courts—are tried before juries. The Jurors’ Association will advocate for their broadened jurisdiction.
Leonid Nikitinsky is court reporter for Novaya Gazeta and head of the Guild of Court Reporters in Russia. He is also a founder of the Jurors’ Association (online at juryclub.ru), a Guild project that enlists jurors, judges, jurists, and public figures to advocate for increased use of jury trials.