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Nothing To Pskov At

This is the story of the boondoggle that never was. Twice this year I’ve traveled to Russia as part of a Connecticut delegation sponsored by the Russian American Rule of Law Consortium, a non-profit outfit that partners American jurisdictions with geographic regions in Russia. Its goal is fostering relations between the respective legal communities and bolstering Russia’s significant legal reforms, including the implementation of jury trials in certain serious criminal cases. What I thought was going to be a casual promenade through a few Russian courtrooms, a moveable feast of caviar, borscht and vodka, and some pontificating about how we cross-examine in the Good Ole USA, turned out to be much more. More demanding. More intense. And much, much more rewarding. This was not the equivalent of an extended visit to the Russia exhibit at EPCOT. What we did actually required some hard work, taught us a lot and, I think, actually accomplished something.

The Connecticut part of this project is co-chaired by Judges Barry Schaller and Jonathan Silbert. There were two trips-one in May and a second in September. Judge Silbert, Judge Mike Sheldon, Milford States Attorney Mary Galvin and I went both times. Professor Jim Trowbridge of Quinnipiac Law School joined us in September.

Why I was invited to join this group remains to me a mystery, though I fear it was an attempt to implement the principles artfully articulated by the late Senator Roman Hruska of Nebraska that even the mediocre deserve representation. Judges Silbert and Sheldon, both Russophiles, are fluent in Russian and near-encyclopedias of Russian history. I know next to nothing about Russia, don’t speak the language, and tend to get lost in the duty free shops at international airports. But, hey, they asked. I wasn’t about to say no.

Connecticut is partnered with Pskov (pronounced “scoff”), a region with about 800,000 people whose eponymous capital is located near the Estonian border, about four and a half hours southwest of St. Petersburg. Pskov, with a long, proud history of repelling invaders, is not a garden spot. Far from the beaten path, its buildings are drab and uninspired and its streets and sidewalks are in need of repair. You don’t-or at least I don’t- go to Pskov to study fine art or to practice ballet. What you do get in Pskov is a lesson in unparalleled hospitality and generosity.

The people of Pskov are incredibly warm. Presumably there to teach, we returned having learned more than we could have imagined. Our hosts, most of all Pskov’s Chief Judge, Anatoly Bodnar, effectively put their lives on hold, extending us courtesies and kindnesses we could not have imagined. They shared with us their culture, their history, their homes, their friendship and even their steam baths.

Our “mission” was to share our experiences in trying criminal cases to a jury. Thanks to the wisdom of our leaders, Silbert and Sheldon, we knew that teaching “our way” of doing things was not the right way to go about things. What we felt we could do was try to learn how the Russian trial by jury works and share our experiences with similar aspects of our system.

Beginning in January of 2003, jury trials for serious criminal charges will be implemented throughout Russia. This is a big, big change from what has gone on in the past. All-powerful prosecutors will no longer run the show as they have previously. Judges will assume much of the prosecutors’ power and control. Defense attorneys will also have a much greater role. Concepts nearly identical to ours- burden of proof, proof beyond a reasonable doubt and the right to remain silent- will be part of this new system.

What then could we offer? Judge Silbert located a wise and insightful judge from Moscow where jury trials have been implemented as a kind of pilot project for a number of years. With this judge, Alexander Kozlov, as a focal point, Judges Silbert and Sheldon organized a two-day seminar in Pskov in May. Attended by prosecutors, judges and defense lawyers from Pskov and Novgorod, a nearby city, we hunkered down in the Pskov courthouse and reviewed the mechanics of summoning and selecting juries. Using a factual scenario of a New Year’s Eve murder in a Pskov restaurant composed by Judge Sheldon and Mary Galvin, we even did a mock voir dire in which some of our hosts role-played jurors summoned to court. Russian prosecutors and defense lawyers, Mary and I asked questions and the role-players played their roles. Even with the language difficulties everyone got into it. It was a hoot.

In September, we participated in a follow-up seminar, this time in Novgorod and organized by our counterpart contingent from Rochester, New York. We tried acting out the examination of witnesses at a trial based on the same factual scenario. Judge Kozlov was joined by a Moscow defense lawyer and we tried to again role-play our way through the exercise, only this time there were simultaneous translators and earpieces lending a United Nations-like air to the whole proceeding. A fascinating experience in which we again learned more than we taught.

Concededly, these trips were not all work.

Our hosts showed us monasteries, museums, monuments and more. I’ve seen more icons than there are stalagmites in the Carlsbad Caverns and more churches than there are cornfields in Iowa. And by osmosis I now know more about the Russian poet, Pushkin, than I do about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Our travels were not without their own miscues and adventures. One of us managed to miscalculate the exchange rate by a factor of 10. Another misplaced his passport and, yet another, his airline ticket. One of us bought enough stackable dolls to fill a gift shop. And still another, believing he was going to watch an athletic contest between the Lakers and the Swans, was inveigled into sitting through a ballet performance of Swan Lake [which provided me an opportunity to catch up on some much needed sleep].

We can’t claim our efforts have completely reconfigured the face of the Russian legal terrain. But neither did we spend our time compiling a list of the top ten Bed and Breakfasts south of St. Petersburg to pass on to the directors of Perillo Tours.

What we did do was share some incredible experiences with many, many people in the legal profession; gain a ton of insight into their attempts to adapt to monumental changes in their legal system; and share and, hopefully, generate enthusiasm for the new roles those changes will define for the participants in that system. An entire country is about to revolutionize its judicial system and we were there when.

So what I thought was going to be a boondoggle wasn’t. It was a lot better. We had the opportunity to share thoughts on jury trials with Russian judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers, all of whom, a dozen years ago, were in the crosshairs of American long-range bombers and now are in the forefront of the transformation of the Russian legal system.

We all quickly recognized that, as far as experiences go, this was The Best.