Conflict & Justice

Georgians try trials by jury

The former Soviet Republic of Georgia is just starting to offer jury trials on a limited basis, but most Georgians are unfamiliar with the concept. So Americans are playing a role in helping Georgians get ready. Reporter Mary Stucky has some examples.

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Jury trials are a staple of the American judicial system. But they've just recently been introduced in a limited way in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.

Since trial by jury remains unfamiliar there, some American prosecutors have been offering their services to get the country ready. One thing they've been doing is scripting TV courtroom dramas to give Georgians a taste of what a jury does.

Jared Kimball, an American lawyer who grew up watching shows like LA Law, said he never realized when he signed up for a US Justice Department program in Georgia, that he'd be writing screenplays.

�We would use a famous Georgian, an actor, a sports figure, to be in the jury as a way to draw attention so as they were flipping channels they might see someone famous on the jury and keep watching,� Kimball said. �I think it worked.�

The show debuted on October 1st, the day that jury trials became an option for murder cases in and around the capital, Tibilisi. Roland Vashagashvili, a Tbilisi resident who's seen the show, said it was a little melodramatic for his taste, but he added, �after watching the program, I have a more positive view of juries.�

But other Tiblisi residents remain skeptical. Nino Danelia said she's worried about the prospect of having to serve on a jury.

�I am very afraid that I'll have to go to the court and make a decision,� she said, �and that verdict might be wrong. I don't want to judge others.�

Another Tibilisi resident, Ana Panisashvili, said it's going to take a lot more than a television show to get Georgians to accept juries. �Georgians do not trust the judiciary,� she said, �People think juries could be bribed just as easily as judges.�

In fact, Georgians rank the judiciary as the most corrupt institution in the country. US District Judge John Tunheim, who's been working with judges in Georgia, said there is clearly corruption in the court system.

He said that he thinks that having juries will help build trust in Georgia's court system, because it will get the public involved in important decision making.

Georgia's Supreme Court assistant chief justice Zaza Meishvili, who is considered to be one of the country's young reformers, said she also thinks serving on juries will make Georgians more engaged citizens.

�Giving decision power to Georgians is a big step forward on the way to the democratization of the country,� she said.

So far, no defendant has chosen a jury trial, but Jared Kimball, the American prosecutor who has been writing Georgian courtroom dramas, expects it to happen anytime now.

�I think people will be ready for that first trial and I'll be in the front row,� Kimball said.

And that trial will be for real.