First lay judges hand killer 15-year term

But with death penalty off table, hardest choice remains untested

Kyodo News

The nation’s first lay judges found Katsuyoshi Fujii guilty Thursday of murder and sentenced him to 15 years in prison.

The trial was relatively straightforward because Fujii admitted killing his neighbor, 66-year-old Mun Chun Ja, a woman of South Korean nationality.

Media attention was intense for the first trial in the postwar period in which ordinary citizens took part.

With the trial centering on determining the punishment for Fujii, 72, prosecutors demanded that he receive 16 years in prison, while a lawyer representing the victim’s family called for “at least 20 years.”

Fujii’s lawyers said the prosecutors’ demand was too severe because he did not intend to kill Mun and her death occurred after the two quarreled.

Throughout the trial, all six citizen judges posed questions to Fujii, such as why he had a survival knife at the time rather than a kitchen knife and why he used a knife that belonged to his late daughter.

The new judicial system is intended to make criminal trials, long dominated by legal professionals, more reflective of public sentiment.

Some 3,000 cases a year are expected to be tried under the lay judge system, in which six citizen judges and three professional judges oversee serious criminal cases, including murder, at district courts.

But many people in Japan remain reluctant to be involved in handing down sentences, including the death penalty, and questions have been raised by critics over what they say is the overly strict lifetime secrecy obligation imposed on lay judges.

The obligation exists so all judges can speak their opinion freely during closed-door discussions, according to the Supreme Court. But critics are wary it could prevent lay judges from blowing the whistle on professional judges for mishandling the discussions and say it will make it difficult to ascertain problems in the new system.

The first lay judge trial started Monday after the court chose people and three alternates from randomly selected eligible voters. One of the six judges was replaced with an alternate Wednesday because she fell ill.

Trials are to be kept relatively short to lessen the burden on lay judges, who may have to take time off from work or ask others to take care of their children while they attend court.

Japan had a jury system, albeit limited, between 1928 and 1943, but it was suspended amid the rise of militarism.