NEPHI — After losing his re-election bid for Juab County Attorney, David Leavitt decided to take stock of his life.

He had gone back to being a criminal defense lawyer but felt he needed more of a change.

That change would take him and his family across the world — to the fledgling democracy of the Ukraine.

"It changed us in a very profound and dramatic way," he said. "It gave us perspective on how good we have it in the U.S."

Leavitt heard of a program sponsored by the American Bar Association (ABA) where he would train lawyers and judges in the Ukraine, helping them set up a more democratic justice system.

"This truly was a 'Hey, let's go give our kids this experience,"' he said.

Leavitt and his wife packed up and with their six children moved from the tiny central Utah town of Nephi to Kiev, the bustling capitol of the former Soviet republic of the Ukraine.

Little did they know that after the ABA program ended, they would start a nonprofit institute that brings American judges and lawyers to the Ukraine in hopes of reforming a post-Soviet justice system.

Their plane arrived just as the "Orange Revolution" was beginning.

Protesters took to the streets in Kiev in 2004, pushing for democracy in an outcry over the rigged presidential election between Viktor Yuschenko and Viktor Yanukovych. Wearing orange, the protesters showed their support for Yuschenko.

Leavitt's office in Kiev was near the tent city set up by Yuschenko supporters.

"It was just a wild experience," he recalled. "Everybody in the country wanted change and wanted this opposition candidate, and nobody thought he would be the winner."

By the time the Ukrainian Supreme Court ordered a second presidential election in December, Leavitt said he was afraid of violence. So he packed up his family and a neighbor lady, rented a van and went across western Europe. They spent Christmas in the French Alps, unsure of what their future held.

"We came very close to just packing it up and coming home," he said. "We said, 'We're not going to reform a government.' But we decided to stick it out."

Yuschenko won the election.

Since then, the Ukrainian president has been pushing for reform in many areas — economically and politically. It hasn't been easy. Yanukovych is the prime minister and is viewed by many as still tied to old Russian ways.

Utahns in Kiev

After finishing his service with the ABA and returning home to Nephi, the experience of Kiev lingered with Leavitt and his family.

"We live so well in the United States," Chelom Leavitt said. "There are so many people who would like to give back in the legal profession, but don't have the opportunity for that kind of service."

The two lawyers created the Leavitt Institute for International Development, with an office in Nephi and an office in Kiev. It was started with money the Leavitts raised privately, through family and friends.

The goal is to teach law students the fundamentals of the American jury system. A semesterlong course is offered at three Ukrainian universities. The Leavitts have raided their Rolodex of judges and lawyers, convincing them to volunteer their time and experience in the courtroom to influence a fledgling democracy.

"Few things that judges and lawyers do have such potential for positive change," Fourth District Court Judge Anthony Schofield said in an e-mail from Kiev, where he is teaching.

Third District Court Judge Denise Lindberg just returned from a two-week stint where she taught 240 students.

"At this point, there is a real misunderstanding. Even though the students are very bright, they come from a system that really has no concept of what constitutional guarantees really mean," she told the Deseret Morning News. "They acknowledge their constitution provides for jury trials, but that's a concept that was totally foreign to a Soviet judicial system. They don't know how it works and in some cases, judges and others in authority are rather suspicious about it."

Lindberg went over basic concepts — the powers of courts, why jury trials help preserve basic freedoms. Students come directly from high school and embark on a five-year program.

"They're relatively young, very enthusiastic and very open about the fact that their system does not work," Lindberg said. "I just keep telling them, 'If you want to change things, you are the ones that will make it happen."'

She also wants their education to be interesting. Among her ideas: unearthing a Russian language copy of the classic American film "12 Angry Men" that shows a dramatized jury deliberation.

System driven by bribes

The Leavitts don't speak highly of the Ukrainian justice system, which they said is still entrenched in a post-Soviet world.

"You can be arrested without even knowing what you're accused of. You can be imprisoned for months. You have little — if any — access to counsel," Chelom Leavitt said. "It's all pretty much driven by bribes. A defense lawyer's role is simply to mitigate the length of time the accused will spend in prison."

Beaten and forced confessions are admissible and the judges aren't much help, she said. An informal survey conducted in the Ukraine found 97 percent of judges admitted to taking bribes.

"Everyone's on the take," she said, noting that sentences are based on how much you can pay the judge, who only makes about $200 a month in wages from the government. Police only make about $100 a month.

Because so many lawyers and judges in the Ukraine are entrenched in their ways, David Leavitt said there isn't much hope to reform them. Instead, he's concentrating on the next generation of legal professionals.

"Our jury trial course is very, very heavy on morals and ethics," he said. "They'll get as much of that this year as how to run a jury trial."

By pushing ethics and prodding the government to pay a living wage, Chelom Leavitt said they hope to keep students from falling into that trap.

Lindberg, like other participants, is volunteering her time and sacrificing vacation hours, but finds it thrilling to be essentially shaping history in the Ukraine.

"Can you imagine what good could could come of this? We hope it will make a difference in the lives of these young students and the lives of Ukrainian citizens we may never know," Lindberg said. "Our hope is that in 10-15 years, when these law students are members of Parliament and judges and practicing attorneys, they will be more willing and committed to implementing constitutional guarantees — and will have seen it firsthand."

Leavitt said the Ukrainian government under president Viktor Yuschenko is changing, but slowly. The Ukrainian people, who protested in the streets, are growing impatient. The Leavitt Institute has made valuable contacts with members of the Ukrainian Supreme Court and has found an ally in President Yuschenko's wife.

The group plans to stage a series of "mock trial" competitions next year, involving common Ukrainian citizens to serve on a jury.

"These will be the first jury trials that have ever occurred in the Ukraine," Lindberg said.

She and others hope that interschool competitions ultimately produce a final mock trial viewed by Ukrainian judges and the country's Supreme Court. U.S. District Court Judge Paul Cassell also plans to be involved, Leavitt said.

Later, hopes are to refine the curriculum and expand the program throughout the Ukraine.

1 comment on this story

A change in the justice system is on the low end of the priority list, but David Leavitt said he is optimistic.

"If freedom has any hope," he said, "it's going to be with the rising generation."


E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com; lindat@desnews.com