Nikolai Dulepov claims self-defense. "He was strangling me," whispers the 23-year-old, on trial for double murder. That's why he stabbed his friend Yevgenny four times in the back one drunken night last summer, he says. Skinny, with a buzz cut and wearing a dark blue tracksuit, Dulepov is defending himself from inside the "monkey's cage," a barred holding pen that is a typical feature of any Russian courtroom. Then he tells how he also killed Yevgenny's girlfriend when his knife "accidentally landed" in her stomach. "I'm guilty," he says. "But I didn't mean to kill them."
Murder is hardly new to Russia. The novelty is Dulepov's audience: eight women and five men who are making history in one of modern Russia's first trials by jury. Since 1917, when the communist regime banned juries, justice has been meted out by state tribunals in proceedings closed to the public. Technically, Russians have had the right to a trial by jury in Moscow and a few other experimental zones since 1993. But it is only this year that the new system has started to take hold across the country. If all goes according to plan, jury trials will soon be the norm in at least one fourth of Russia's regions, and are expected to be standard by 2007.
The change is part of an ambitious effort to reform post-communist Russia's legal system. Under the Soviet Union, state prosecutors and police had a stranglehold on the courts. Individual legal rights and official judicial proceedings were often as not observed in the breach, making ordinary Russians deeply skeptical of such basic democratic concepts as the rule of law. The overhaul of Russia's antiquated Criminal Procedure Code is designed to put an end to all that. Key amendments provide that defendants be entitled to an attorney, that confessions obtained without a suspect's lawyer being present can be challenged or thrown out and that plea bargaining will be permitted for the first time ever.
The government touts the changes as a great success. But watchdog groups in Russia worry that entrenched interests--crooked politicians, businessmen, security officials--won't easily relinquish their influence over the courts. "Our legal system was in place for more than 70 years," says Genrik Padva, a Russian lawyer whose high-profile cases helped bring about a moratorium on the death penalty in Russia. "To make it democratic overnight is not possible."
Russia's totalitarian justice system was designed to get convictions. Traditionally, police, prosecutors and judges worked together, and a defendant was guilty until proved innocent. Forced confessions and falsified or insupportable evidence were the norm. It mattered little if that evidence was shoddy or incomplete; a common phrase among prosecutors and judges was that "confession is the queen of all evidence." Cases could be retried indefinitely, with judges sending back criminal cases for more investigation--in effect, a road map for conviction. Even after the Soviet collapse, suspects could be held in overcrowded and disease-ridden cells in "pretrial detention centers" for months and even years at a time before their case was presented. Today, Russia has one of highest incarceration rates in the world.
The new reforms, though welcome, do not change much of this. Russia's acquittal rate was, and still is, microscopic. Although experimental jury trials in a handful of Russian regions have helped to raise the acquittal rate from 0.4 percent of all defendants to 0.8 percent last year, that number pales by comparison with the United States or Europe, where acquittals range between 17 and 30 percent. Legal experts say Russia's upper courts still toss out approximately 40 percent of the acquittals by lower courts--where most jury trials will be conducted. And it is within the higher courts that judicial corruption is most rampant. "You can't fight corruption through laws," scoffs a leading Moscow court official without a trace of irony.
Dulepov's murder trial illustrates the difficulties. It's not the sort of case that would attract outside meddling, but it's a challenge to judicial integrity even so. His untaped testimony was recorded in longhand. There were no microphones in the courtroom and the jury had to strain to hear his mumblings. Of the five witnesses called on his behalf, including family members, none showed up. His lawyer, Viktoria Vavilova, doubts the new entitlement to a jury trial will help. "Criminals think it will get them off the hook," she says. "But these people won't have sympathy for him."