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Pinellas offers Russia a bit of legal advice

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

Potential juror No. 37 told Pinellas Circuit Judge Nelly Khouzam that he couldn't serve as a juror because his brother died last week, he works daily with troubled teens and he believes that most kids are bad kids.

Eight visiting Russian scholars and judges sat to the side, taking notes on the questions asked of juror No. 37 and of the juror's rambling explanations and answers.

What those visitors scribbled down may well change the face of the Russian judicial system.

On Jan. 1, Russia is expanding its extremely limited use of the jury trial into a national mandate to use juries to determine the outcome of murder and capital offense trials countrywide.

The delegation is one of many visiting the United States to learn how to meld the logistics, meaning and value of jury trials into the cultural consciousness of a nation largely unused to such ideas.

The delegation members have to learn to ask the right questions of potential jurors and how to detect when a juror should be excused from duty.

"It will be some time before we are acquainted with the system," said professor Valeriy Musin, who teaches at the St. Petersburg State University School of Law and is also a mentor to President Vladimir Putin. "For the judges and state attorneys, it will be much more difficult to obtain a verdict to prosecute people. But this is one more way to ensure the liberties of our constitution."

The delegation visited the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center on Tuesday to see how criminals are booked and where the inmates live, in addition to the intricacies of the court system.

Even the nitty-gritty of budgeting for a court system took top tier when a county official was asked to explain the court's budget ($23-million) and how he pays for things such as computers and copier machines.

One delegate asked why it took two years for a murder case to come to trial, and another wanted a detailed explanation of the pretrial "discovery" process.

"I'm surprised they picked up on the subtleties," said longtime Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer. "One of them saw a juror wasn't telling the truth. They wanted to know what to do. I told them really no one wants a juror who doesn't want to be there."

The delegation members' ears pricked up after learning that Schaeffer has administered the death penalty several times.

Schaeffer offered this advice: "It is your obligation to uphold the law, whether you agree with it or you don't."

Judge Lyubov Olyunina sits on the District Court of St. Petersburg, Russia. She worries that Russia can't afford the fancy computerized booking and court docket system used by Florida.

Larisa Betseleva, department head for the administrative branch of the Russian Federation Supreme Court, was fascinated by American jurors who appeared to spill their life stories to Judge Khouzam.

That kind of unfiltered talk is rare at home, Betseleva said.

"This is going to be extremely complicated for people to understand," Betseleva said. "This public openness. It seems to me the Russians are not all going to tell the truth."