On Tuesday, a judge began reading the verdict in the trial of a man charged in the 2004 attack on a school in Beslan, Russia, that left more than 300 people dead. Russian court officials and media members guess that it will take between four days and two weeks to recite the decision. Why does it take so long?
Because it’s a summary of the entire case. At the conclusion of a criminal trial, Russian judges read their opinion in its entirety from the bench. If the case deals with complicated evidentiary or factual questions, the verdict will likely be long. (The custom in civil cases is for the court to read a shorter opinion aloud and release a longer one later.)
A verdict—or, as it’s called in non-jury trials like the Beslan case, a judgment—comprises three parts. The introduction, or “established facts” section, lists the charges against the defendants. The second—and traditionally the longest—section is the “descriptive reasoning,” an account of the evidence that supports the court’s findings. The conclusion lays out the verdict and sentencing.
While the defendant’s guilt or innocence isn’t revealed until the conclusion, the outcome will generally become clear much sooner. The first section of the Beslan judgment, for instance, says that the court “has established the participation of the defendant in murder and attempted murder.”
When it comes to procedural matters, the Russian system is closer to the civil law of continental Europe than to British and American common law. The tradition in civil law is to read the judgment aloud. In Russia, opinions have been handed down orally since at least Soviet times.
One reason verdicts are so lengthy is that the Russian system allows both the winning and losing side to appeal a decision. The likelihood of an appeal encourages judges to be cautious and lay out the decision-making process in detail.
The most notorious long verdict in recent years came after the trial of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The panel of three judges started reading the verdict on May 16, 2005, and didn’t finish until May 31. (Maria P. Logan, who was part of Khodorkovsky’s defense team, says she started recording the verdict but eventually ran out of tape.) Part of the reason the verdict was so long—it ran to 662 written pages—was that it included, almost verbatim, the prosecutors’ lengthy indictments. Khodorkovsky’s lawyers alleged that the judges read slowly to make the general public lose interest in the trial.
Long verdicts aren’t a pain just for Russian lawyers and defendants. Not only do Russian judges have to read the verdict. By law, they have to write the entire thing themselves.
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Explainer thanks William Burnham of Wayne State University, William Butler of Penn State University, and Peter Maggs of the University of Illinois.