Historic first: Lay judge quizzes witness

Victim's son takes stand, casts doubt on his signed statement

by Setsuko Kamiya

Day two of the first lay judge trial saw another historic first when one of the six citizens on the bench posed questions to a murder victim’s son as he took the stand at the Tokyo District Court.

This marked the first active citizen participation in criminal trial proceedings.

The trial of Katsuyoshi Fujii, 72, started Monday when he pleaded guilty to fatally stabbing his neighbor, Mun Chun Ja, 66, in May.

“I want to ask you about the explanation regarding your mother’s nature, because there seems to be a contradiction (between your testimony and the record),” Lay Judge No. 4 said to Mun’s 37-year-old son on Tuesday.

“How did you confirm what you told police when they questioned you about your mother?” the woman, who appeared to be in her late 20s or early 30s and whose name has been withheld, asked.

Presiding Judge Yasuhiro Akiba clarified the question.

“She wants to know whether the record was read to you, or you read it yourself,” he said.

The focus of the question was on the credibility of a statement the son signed during the police investigation.

The son replied that he didn’t remember because it was right after his mother was killed and he was in shock. The trial proceeded after the question.

According to police records submitted as evidence, the son told police his mother was tough in nature and often spoke sternly to him and his family. But earlier in the day, he testified that she was not that kind of person and that he didn’t remember what he told police, casting doubt on the credibility of the record he signed.

Her disposition is important to the trial because the stabbing occurred when the victim and Fujii quarreled.

Fujii’s lawyers have argued he did not intend to kill Mun, did not chase her or shout that he was going to kill her. Prosecutors are trying to prove he did.

Lay judges, like professional judges, are allowed to ask additional questions directly to witnesses after both the prosecution and defense have finished their examinations.

The lay judge’s question came after the court heard three witnesses who were neighbors of Fujii and Mun. After both parties finished examining each witness, the presiding judge called for a short break so the nine members of the bench could hold a brief meeting in the judges’ chambers.

Before the victim’s son was queried by the lay judge, every time the nine judges returned, only the professional judges questioned the witnesses who took the stand.

It is not known what was discussed during the short closed-door meetings.

Fujii pleaded guilty Monday to fatally stabbing Mun, a Korean national whose Japanese name was Chie Kojima.

The six lay judges and three professional judges are tasked with reaching a verdict and if necessary meting out a sentence.

The trial is to resume Wednesday, when closing arguments by both sides will be presented.

The verdict is scheduled for Thursday.

Awareness up: Mori

Kyodo News

Justice Minister Eisuke Mori said Tuesday that public understanding of the lay judge system is getting better.

“A large fraction of lay judge candidates showed up (at the court), and I see it as a sign that people’s understanding of the lay judge system is growing,” Mori said at a news conference on the second day of the first such trial at the Tokyo District Court.

Asked about one candidate voicing relief at not being chosen, Mori said it was expected as it was the first time for people to experience a lay judge trial.

“People coming to court to fulfill their obligations is proof that they understand the system,” he said.

Under the lay judge system, introduced in May, lay judge candidates are summoned to the court to go through selection procedures for picking six lay judges and three alternates. Those who do not show up without a proper reason can be fined.