On Jan. 1, 2003, Russia will reinstate jury trials for the first time since the Bolshevik revolution — and it has New Haven to thank.
Last week, a delegation of three judges, three prosecutors, and three defense attorneys from Pskov, Russia, visited New Haven as part of a program that introduces Russian legal professionals to institutions of the American legal system, in preparation for the initiation of broad legal reforms in Russia. The visit was funded by the U.S. Library of Congress Open World Russian Leadership Program in collaboration with the Connecticut-Pskov Rule of Law Project.
“Numerous reforms are taking place that shift power from prosecutors to judges,” said the project’s co-chairman Judge Jonathan Silbert, administrative judge for the New Haven Judicial District. For instance, before July 1 of this year, arrest and search warrants were issued by prosecutors rather than judges. Also, courts are allowing a larger amount of oral testimony on a defendant’s behalf, Silbert said.
And of course, Russia will soon have trial by jury. The new jury trials, however, will not be at all identical to those in the United States.
“Jurors [in Russia] are encouraged to be anonymous,” Silbert said. “However, after three hours they can vote and the majority rules [for pronouncing a guilty verdict].” This contrasts sharply with the American jury trial, in which a jury’s decision must be unanimous in order to convict in a criminal case.
Presently, the judge acts as the chief decision-maker during a Russian trial. Usually, cases are decided by a judge alone or by a judge and two lay assistants, Silbert said. After viewing all the evidence and hearing all the oral testimony himself — or with his assistants — the judge alone issues the verdict.
“The judge essentially has a book — a dossier — which the judge is charged with reading from start to finish,” Silbert said, referring to the scope of a jurist’s involvement.
He said some areas of Russia have been experimenting with jury trials for a number of years but have yet to officially institute such a system.
The process of broadening the use of the jury trial to include all of Russia is occurring in three steps: building special courtrooms to accommodate juries, educating lawyers and judges about the jury system, and increasing the public’s awareness of judicial reforms.
Silbert said he witnessed this process during numerous visits to Russia, during which he gave seminars to introduce Russian legal professionals to the concept of a jury trial. During one such visit to Pskov, Silbert toured a newly constructed courtroom designed for the new jury trials which he described as “nicer than many of our jury courtrooms.”
Judicial Department spokeswoman Rhonda Stearley-Hebert said the itinerary of the Russian delegates who visited New Haven included a tour of the New Haven Correctional Center, an observation of a jury selection and jury trial, an introduction to plea bargaining, and meetings with various U.S. judges and lawyers.
Silbert, who studied Russian in college, said the experience has been satisfying for him both personally and professionally.
“I’m having fun and doing something useful at the same time,” he said. “Life doesn’t get any better than this.”