Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Mendel Beilis -- no way to run a trial

The government handed their prosecutors a murder charge on which they could not win.  That was due, not only to the faked evidence, but also to how the case was conducted, and that goes back to normal Tsarist legal practice, with which the prosecutors dealt extremely ill.

The first and most pervasive problem in trying the Beilis case was that the government did not proceed quickly to trial.  Some witnesses were deposed two years before the trial began.  Some were first deposed in summer 1912, including Brazul, Krasovsky, Margolin and the Dyakon sisters.  But even a year is too long to remember details.
The government did not bring the witnesses in to rehearse them before the trial.  In the Russian legal system, it was perfectly legitimate to use depositions at trial instead of bringing in the person who gave the deposition.  This played into the government’s hands in some cases.  People with the most dangerous knowledge were sent to Siberia or lost track of deliberately so they could not be cross-questioned on the witness stand.  They testified only through depositions.

Russia also had a legal practice which allowed people taking depositions to leave out information they felt was not important at the time.
That meant that the forensic investigator had full power to force his own theory of the case on the documentation the prosecution and defense would both rely on during a trial.  If evidence turned up later that falsified the theory, the forensic investigator had full power to call the witnesses back in, disrupting their jobs, to find out what they knew relative to the new evidence.

If, of course, he was not too lazy, or too arrogant, or too prejudiced (or too bribed) to do it.
The multiple depositions taken by Vasily Fenenko suggest that he was conscientious in his work.  But when it got to trial, important material was missing from the depositions.  The one deposition that Fenenko did take down in every last devastating detail, was the fumbling, self-contradictory statement of Vasily Cheberyak on December 20, 1911, during which Chaplinsky was in the room to oversee Fenenko’s work.

When the prosecution ran across this problem with the depositions, they berated the witness for lying if the witness claimed they told Fenenko this or that detail, because it wasn’t in the deposition.  Or they would ask the witness why Fenenko left that detail out of the deposition.  Or both. 
Mashkevich, who took depositions in 1912, was just as bad as Fenenko; detective Krasovsky testified to that.

Fenenko testified at trial, but not until day 19, and by then the handwriting was on the wall, and in any case he was called by the defense, and the prosecution didn’t seriously muck around with one of the two Kiev officials who had kept their jobs while, all around them, Chaplinsky was cashiering people who refused to support the ritual murder part of the government theory.  Somebody who can survive that has serious connections and nobody messes with that.
Another thing the prosecution had to deal with was the fact that numbers of witnesses, almost half of them, were illiterate.  When Fenenko tried to get dates and times from them, as often as not, the best they could do was say “it happened in autumn” or, in one case, “it was after the Feast of the Forty Martyrs.”  Kazimir Shakhovsky didn’t say he saw Andrey and Zhenya at 7:30, he said that the third whistle at the factory had gone off.  Fenenko, a long-time Kievlyanin, knew that this happened at 7:30 and that’s what he put in the deposition.

Illiterate people do not read newspapers or keep diaries, and almost everything they knew about the case was hearsay.  That was perfectly admissible evidence in a Russian court, as long as the witness could name the person he heard it from.  One chain of hearsay went from a 12-year-old boy named Pilaev, to his mother’s friend Repetskaya, to an unnamed night guard, to an unnamed plumber. 
By the time Andrey’s murder became a Federal case, there was nothing but rumor for most witnesses to go on.  That, in the end, is why the government had to build their case out of whole cloth.  That or abandon it.  But abandoning the case would not have satisfied the Black Hundreds; even Golubev might not have been able to stop a pogrom if the government had dropped the case for lack of evidence.

So the government sandbagged the prosecution from two ends.  One was in not telling them the case could not be won because honest and reasonable people would be telling the truth on the witness stand, and the truth didn’t support the government theory.  The other is that the police and Fenenko had hosed up the evidence to the point where nothing direct pointed to even the real murderers.  It would have been equally difficult to convict Vera and her gang with the information that the government collected in 1911 and 1912.
Unless they turned to the private investigators.  Brazul’s 1911 work was a load of garbage, but what he and Krasovsky did in 1912 was two-fold.

The most important thing was that they got a visit from a guy who knew a guy who had served out a sentence in jail and never knuckled under to the jail officials, giving him a great reputation among criminals.  The team worked out a way for this guy, Karaev, to get to Singaevsky, Vera’s brother, and get his trust.  At the end of April, 1912, Singaevsky unloaded a lot of anger against Kiev’s officials, and then confessed that he and Rudzinsky and Latyshev murdered Andrey in Vera’s apartment.  He said it happened between the Adamovich robbery and the getaway to Moscow.  He said he thought that Rudzinsky was going to be OK, even though Ivanov was sweating him for a confession, because Rudzinsky could use the robbery for an alibi.
The problem with that, which both sets of attorneys tried to pound into Singaevsky when he took the stand, was that the government theory said Andrey was murdered in the morning.  Think about it.  Singaevsky didn’t need an alibi unless he was the murderer.  When the prosecution went after him on this issue, they admitted that Beilis was not the murderer.  They blew their own case, and that was the other thing Karaev’s team accomplished.  Why did the government believe in a morning murder?

There are two reasons.  First, the government had a deposition from a man named Yov Zelensky who lived in a village called Grebenki.  Zelensky and half a dozen other people from this village came to the factory to work, and Yov said they didn't get there until 3 p.m. March 12, 1911, or later.  This meant that the only people on the factory grounds were Jews who would lie to protect Beilis. But the same accounting records that proved Beilis was at work on Saturday, proved that the two Grebenki workers who could read and write had signed paperwork for their loads on 8 March.  What's worse, the in-court testimony of Yov and all six of the other Grebenki workers contradicted each other.  No two of them told the same story.  If none of their stories matched, none of their testimony supported the government theory.

Second, Vera Cheberyak had a fight with Zinaida Malitskaya, who lived downstairs from the Cheberyaks and could hear everything that went on upstairs.  Her husband went up and complained about it more than once.  After the fight, Zinaida went and told the police a vague story, which they didn’t really believe.  In August, after her husband came home from tending beehives in the country, Zinaida told him the story.  In November, when he came home for the winter, he took her to give a deposition to Fenenko.  There were just two problems.  She told her husband she heard suspicious noises in the morning, but she told Fenenko she heard them at night.
The other problem, of course, is that Malitskaya was convinced Vera had murdered Andrey.  Nothing in her story brings in Beilis.  That was a pervasive problem from day 15 of the trial through day 19.

Because on day 15 the jury heard from Ekaterina Dyakon: she and her sister Ksenya went to Vera’s at 11 on March 12, saw Andrey almost 2 hours after the government theory said he was dead, and knew he was still in the house at 3 when they left, ahead of Vasily coming home for dinner.

The government mixed up the Dyakons’ testimony with Adele Ravich’s story about seeing Andrey’s body rolled up in Vera’s jute carpet before the Dyakons got to Vera’s.  And they did that because Adele Ravich never told the government that story.  She told it to her husband, and he told it all over Lukyanovka, and by September 20, 1913, it grew into Vera keeping the body in her apartment for three days still rolled up in the carpet.  It was all rumor and gossip.  But in August 1911, Adele and her husband left for America using 300 rubles that Vera gave them, and the government refused to contact the Russian embassy in the U.S. or Canada to find them and bring them back, not in the whole two years before the trial began.
In 1914, Krasovsky and another man went to America, found the Raviches, got an affidavit from them about Andrey’s murder, and came back, all in the space of six weeks.  The affidavit has disappeared.  Nobody knows now what it said.
But the government knew there were bloodstains on Vera’s jute carpet; it says so in the indictment.  And they had the carpet tested for blood.  The man assigned to this test used his naked eye to examine spots on the carpet that looked like something had been poured on them.  He used no microscope.  He ran no chemical tests, of which a dozen reliable ones had been known for the previous 50 years.  The Russian government screwed up its case against Mendel Beilis in every possible way and if it failed to convict him, at least it also would fail to convict Vera.
Now, what kind of connections do you suppose she had?

The juror's story

© Patricia Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved

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