The Onoprienko trial was delayed by the fact that, according to Ukrainian law, the defendant is obliged to read all the evidence against them before the trial may begin. In Onoprienko’s case, there were over 99 volumes of photographic evidence of his crimes, which he perused at leisure, in no rush to go to trial.
Another factor delaying trial was the fact that Ukrainian law also requires the court to pay all travel and accommodation costs for the witnesses it calls. In the Onoprienko case, there were four hundred witnesses and the court could simply not afford these costs. Following a televised appeal, the Ukrainian government agreed to allocate funds for this purpose.
Onoprienko’s lawyer, Ruslan Moshkovsky, initially pleaded the insanity defence but this was over-ruled when Onoprienko was examined by psychiatrists and it was announced on 23 November 1998 that he had been deemed fit to stand trial.
Moshkovsky then asked that Onoprienko’s childhood spent in an orphanage be taken into account as extenuating circumstances. However, the prosecutor, Yury Ignatenko, argued that this was inadmissible, as Onoprienko had already been deemed fit to stand trial and that his violent nature was his motive for murder.
The four-month trial eventually began, two years after the arrest, in November 1998 in the City of Zhytomyr, presided over by Judge Dmitro Lypsky.
Onoprienko appeared in court in an iron cage like an animal. His killings had affected a great many people and the Ukrainian nation was outraged. The irate crowds spat at him, taunted him and shouted that he should suffer a slow and agonising death. It seemed as if Onoprienko’s crimes were about to start a riot. Police were needed to calm the crowds and ensure the courtroom was safe for the trial to continue.
In stark contrast to the mayhem and vehemence he incited in onlookers, Onoprienko remained silent in court. When asked if he would like to make a statement, he merely shrugged and replied quietly, “No, nothing”.
Serhiy Rogozin, 36, appeared in court as Onoprienko’s co-defendant, accused of being an accomplice in the first nine murders. He proclaimed his innocence but was found guilty and sentenced to 13 years in prison.
In their closing statements, prosecutor Ignatenko called for the death sentence whilst Moshkovsky called for a softening of the punishment due to Onoprienko’s deprived childhood.
Following three hours of deliberation, on 31 March 1999, Judge Lypsky called the court back to session to read out the details of the murders as well as his verdict. Onoprienko was found guilty of murder and, according to Ukrainian criminal code, sentenced to death by shooting. He admitted guilt to all 52 charges of murder, including 10 children, but claimed he felt no remorse for what he had done.
In a strange twist of fate, due to the Ukraine’s intention of joining the Council of Europe, a moratorium had been put in place to abolish capital punishment. Politicians and the public argued however that the Onoprienko case should be seen as an exception and that he should be shot. This was not to be and Onoprienko’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison.