Citizens stepped up, fulfilled new court duty

by Setsuko Kamiya

With the Thursday close of the first lay judge trial, Japan has joined the ranks of some 80 countries whose citizens participate in criminal trials.

Experts interviewed by The Japan Times agreed that all parties involved in the Tokyo District Court trial, including the six “saibanin” (lay judges), had done “a great job” amid the attention and pressure.

Hundreds of mock trials during the five-year preparation period seem to have paid off, they said, adding the lay judges should speak out about their experience to help the system take root.

“This is probably the first time the Japanese public paid so much attention to every detail in the criminal trial process, and that itself is already significant,” said Akira Goto, a professor at Hitotsubashi University Graduate School of Law who specializes in criminal procedure law.

Previous government public opinion polls showed that about 70 percent of surveyed voters were willing to serve as lay judges. Legal professionals were thus stunned when 96 percent of those who were summoned, or 47 out of 49 potential judges, showed up for the selection process Monday.

“To be sure, it was the first case ever and attracted much attention, but I believe the high turnout actually showed the Japanese people are taking (the duty) very seriously,” said lawyer Takeshi Nishimura, a senior member of the task force of the lay judge system at the Japan Federation of Bar Associations.

Five women and one man were chosen randomly by computer for the trial of 72-year-old Katsuyoshi Fujii, who was accused of stabbing to death his neighbor, Mun Chun Ja, 66. All had gone through the process of filling out a questionnaire and submitting to a brief interview to determine their impartiality. The selection process was closed to the public.

During the years when trials were handled solely by professional judges, the process relied heavily on documents and was loaded with legal jargon.

But in this case, in which the accused admitted his guilt, the proceedings centered on direct questioning of witnesses, while the legal professionals made an effort to couch their arguments in plain language.

Had this case been held under the previous system, Fujii would not have been questioned so extensively, professor Goto noted.

Fujii and Mun had been on bad terms for years. On May 1, after an argument, Fujii took a survival knife from his house and stabbed Mun to death.

Prosecutors demanded a 16-year prison term for Fujii, who had a criminal record, including a conviction for bodily injury resulting in death several decades ago.

In their closing argument, the prosecution team reminded the judges that murder is punishable by a wide range of sentences, from a five-year term to the death penalty. They recommended not imposing the death sentence or life imprisonment in this case because the stabbing was not premeditated and the death was the result of a quarrel between neighbors on bad terms.

“This sort of thing was never mentioned before in trials, because professionals shared common criteria for sentencing,” Nishimura said.

Fujii’s lawyers speculated that the prosecutors didn’t want the lay judges to focus too much on the severest punishments when weighing the sentence. Calling the prosecution’s sentencing demand too harsh, the defense asked for a lighter sentence. In the end, Fujii got 15 years.

The straightforward presentations and speeches have consequences beyond simply enabling lay judges to more easily follow the proceedings.

According to Goto, the principle of an open court has finally been realized in Japan.

“The fact that the evidence is now clear to understand means it will allow the public to see whether the procedure is being done accurately,” he said.

“And when a sentence is handed down, people will know the basis for that decision,” he said, stressing that the change is especially important for the defendant, who was often ignorant of the proceedings, despite the right to a fair trial.