Georgia on October 1 introduced jury trials in a move designed to boost public confidence in the judicial system and burnish the country’s democratization image.
Under revisions to the criminal code, cases of aggravated homicide heard in Tbilisi are eligible to be decided by juries. If the experience proves successful over the next four years, other criminal offenses and civil law cases would become eligible for jury trials. The convening of jury trials would also spread beyond the capital to Georgia’s regions.
It may be months before a Georgian jury renders a verdict. The revised criminal code stipulates that a judge-led trial can still be selected for aggravated homicide cases instead of a jury trial, if both the defense and prosecution prefer that format, according to Supreme Court Deputy Justice Zaza Meishvili.
The prevailing attitude governing the introduction of jury trials appears to be that patience offers the best chance for success. Not “more than a dozen, at most” jury trials are expected in the coming year, said Gregory E. Mize, a retired Washington, DC judge who has worked with Georgian judges to prepare for the change.
Georgia’s jury system largely borrows from the American model, but also contains some major differences. Psychologists, psychiatrists, lawyers and priests cannot serve on a jury, an exclusion based on concern that they could influence fellow jury members. As in the United States, police officers, government officials and armed forces members are exempt from jury duty.
Jury verdicts also do not necessarily have to be unanimous; to avoid a hung jury, majority verdicts are allowed if the jury fails to agree unanimously on a verdict after three hours of deliberation. A nine-hour time limit is put on deliberations. Georgia is the first country in the South Caucasus to offer the possibility of a jury trial.
Civil society organizations hope that involving ordinary Georgians in the trial process will help reduce Georgia’s rate of criminal convictions, which runs at nearly 100 percent of those individuals charged with a crime. “Such rates create a general sense that the prosecutors run the show in the courtroom, and judges do little more than rubber-stamping,” commented Mari Gabedava, a project manager at Transparency International Georgia.
The advent of jury trials in neighboring Russia led to a substantial increase in acquittals, Gabedava continued. “In Georgia, we may get even better results as, unlike in Russia, jury verdicts of ‘not guilty’ are not subject to [prosecutorial] appeals,” she said.
Jury duty represents a challenging new civic responsibility in a culture with a longtime penchant for nepotism and skepticism toward courts. In 2009, public confidence in Georgian courts stood at just 24 percent, three percentage points down from the previous year, according to an opinion poll conducted by the Tbilisi-based Caucasus Research and Resource Center.
During the Soviet era, and stretching into the early years of Georgia’s post-Soviet experience, many Georgians went to great lengths to keep disputes, even criminal incidents, out of the courts. In many cases, underworld bosses, known as “thieves-in-law,” acted as de-facto binding arbiters in a wide variety of disputes. “It was much more efficient to solve a civil dispute, or even a criminal dispute, through ‘kanonieri kurdi’ [Georgian for a thief-in-law] than through corrupt courts,” commented Mark Mullen, who served as head of the National Democratic Institute in Georgia from 1997 through 2003.
After taking office in 2004, President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration effectively stamped out the criminal bosses. Allegations of judicial corruption have since diminished. But many Georgians still believe that judges these days are careful to toe the president’s political line when deciding cases.
Mullen, who now serves on the board of Transparency International Georgia, says that, amid sagging popular trust in Georgia’s justice system, a jury system can promote the perception of judicial independence. [Editor’s note: Transparency International receives funding from the New York-based Open Society Institute. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of OSI].
To prepare for the switchover to jury trials, the government has been running a series of infomercials about juries and holding mock sessions for jury selection. In addition, a website, Msajuli.ge, has been launched to explain rules and procedures.
Skeptics worry that separating jurors from pressure exerted by relatives and friends could prove a tall order in a small country of 4.6 million people. “The fact that jurors will not be isolated from the public during the trial may become a major problem,” said Tbilisi media analyst Ellada Gamreklidze. “What will I do if somebody threatens me or my child?”
Threatening a jury member carries a criminal punishment, but this does little to allay such fears. For financial reasons, the Georgian government jettisoned the idea of sequestering juries, said Supreme Court Deputy Justice Meishvili.
Meishvili, though, maintains that the jury selection procedures will guard against undue outside influence on jurors. “During the selection, the prosecution and defense will have the opportunity to reveal potential biases and winnow out jurors,” he said.
Jurors will be selected from a 100-person pool in the presence of the plaintiff, the defendant and their attorneys. All registered voters between the ages of 18 and 70, and who do not work in exempt categories, are eligible for jury duty.
One American legal consultant who assisted Georgian judges with preparing for jury trials also believes that the close kinship and friendship ties that often link Georgians will not prove an undermining factor. “In the United States, we have lots of trials in small towns,” said Paula Hannaford-Agor, director of the Center for Jury Studies at the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Virginia. “I live in a town that has less than 10,000 people who live there and everybody knows everybody. But … the fact that you know someone does not necessarily mean that you are biased, either for them or against them.”
Despite the misgivings about how smoothly Georgia will make the transition to trial by jury, many local observers maintain the experiment is worthwhile. “If you wait for people to be ready for new responsibility, they are never ready … but once you give them the responsibility, they will rise up to it,” said Mullen.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.