The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA)
Posted on January 1, 2000
By Stephanie A. Stanley
With cigarette smoke billowing from the normally nonsmoking jury room, something clearly unusual was transpiring at the St. Tammany Parish Courthouse in Covington on Monday.
Amid the swirling cloud, Yury P. Tirtishov, Vadim A. Motovskykh and Aleksandr Pastukhov sat huddled around veteran public defender Kevin Linder, grilling him in their brusque Russian dialect about how to get "his man" on a jury to vote his way.
Exhaling his own stream of smoke, a laid-back Linder, in true American defense lawyer talk, explains such a coup is never a sure bet. With the jury system, he tells them, one can never tell.
The Russians, however, had no reason to fear the sometimes capricious ways of an American jury. Rather, the courtroom had turned to classroom at the invitation of state Judge Patricia Hedges, who played host to the Russian government officials on the first day of their weeklong educational tour of various governmental agencies.
"It's an effort to show Russians there are other ways of looking at government and society," said Bill Matthews, who manages the Russian Leadership Program, the federal grant program that brought Russian delegates to St. Tammany Parish for the second year in a row. "They learn through exposure to our government and society."
And one thing this year's group discovered quickly, and with great surprise and admiration, is that American judges are independent from other government branches.
"They didn't expect that no one controls the court, because in Russia it's not that way," said Pastukhov, who acted as translator for the group. "No one controls the judges (here) except his conscious."
After observing court proceedings Monday morning, including an atypically quick property settlement between an estranged married couple (the hearing lasted less than 10 minutes), the group moved on to the St. Tammany Parish jail.
There, the four Russian delegates and their two translators got a peek at how St. Tammany Parish houses its accused and people convicted of lesser offenses.
After they examined a cell block resembling a jungle-gym of metal bars, any Hollywood impressions the visitors had about resort-style American jails faded.
"There's a stereotype that American jail is like Russian flat (an apartment)," Pastukhov said, noting that his countrymen now know better.
"It's better than Russian jails," he said, however, translating the group's reaction to the parish jail. Particularly the half-foot-wide windows reaching from floor to ceiling in the cells. "They're bigger than in Russian jails," he said.
The Russian Leadership Program, financed by a $10 million grant from the U.S. Congress and the Library of Congress, is bringing about 1,200 Russian government and government-related officials to the United States this year to get a ground-level look at American government in action.
The visitors to St. Tammany, four delegates and their translators, are staying at the homes of three families in Slidell and are expected to visit state buildings in Baton Rouge, the Bonnabel Pump Station, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation in Metairie and a sewage plant in Slidell, among other facilities.
They also will meet with a number of government officials, including St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis and Slidell Mayor Sam Caruso, to discuss environmental and economic development issues.
Copyright 2000 The Times-Picayune Publishing Co. The Times-Picayune
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