The first serving lay judges expressed relief Thursday at having completed their duties and encouraged others to step up and benefit from what they called “a valuable experience.”
After handing down a 15-year prison term for murder to 72 year-old defendant Katsuyoshi Fujii at the Tokyo District Court, the six lay judges and an alternate said the proceedings were clear and easy to follow.
Although the names of the seven were withheld, they all gave their ages and occupations. The six lay judges were comprised of four women and two men aged between 38 and 61, and included company employees, a piano teacher and a dietitian. The alternate was a 38-year-old male company employee.
“It was not an easy decision to make, so we had to carefully take time to go over the evidence again and again and find the elements we needed to weigh,” said 50-year-old lay judge No. 1, a company employee. It was the first time she had seen a trial, but she was able to follow the proceedings, which she said were clear and easy to understand.
Lay judge No. 5, a contract employee and the youngest of the group, said: “Initially I wasn’t sure that an ordinary housewife like me could serve in a trial, but we all worked together with the (professional) judges and completed the task.”
At home during the evenings, the woman said she had thought about society rather than the trial itself. “I thought about crime victims, and I also had to question why society has such crimes.”
Similar sentiments were shared by lay judge No. 7, a part-time company employee who was the oldest of the group. He said he thought about the defendant Wednesday night and could not help feeling sad. Evidence submitted by the prosecution showed Fujii had an unfortunate upbringing.
The man said he was not too excited about being summoned, but now appreciates the opportunity to have been a lay judge because the four days changed his views of society.
“Society is made by each one of us, and as long as we don’t say anything, it won’t change,” he said. “To make this society a better place, we should actively take part in it.”
The press conference was strictly controlled following an agreement between the media and the court that the questions would be addressed carefully to protect the confidentiality of the lay judges. By law, lay judges are prohibited from revealing confidential matters, including details of the deliberations, but they are free to discuss their impressions about the new duty.
The 51-year-old piano teacher said she appreciated the professional judges, who helped create an environment for them to discuss the case freely. “I saw things in ways I’ve never seen before, and I thought of things from different viewpoints. It was hard at the start, but it was a precious experience,” she said.
The lay judges said they managed to come to a decision within four days, but the length of trials may vary in other cases.
“If the case is more complicated, with more witnesses, or is one that is subject to the death penalty, I don’t think four days will be enough,” lay judge No. 6 said, adding he appreciated the support of his family and coworkers while he was away on duty.
The citizen judges did not fully consider the argument of the defense when they sentenced the accused to 15 years, his counsel said after the nation’s first lay judge trial ended Thursday.
“The reasons (for the sentence) were completely based on the prosecutors’ closing statement,” lawyer Shunji Date told reporters after the six lay judges and three professional judges found Katsuyoshi Fujii guilty of killing his neighbor, Mun Chun Ja, with whom he had repeatedly argued, and handing him a prison term that fell one year short of what the prosecutors had sought.
“Although the lay judges were there, I felt the ruling seemed to mirror the though process of the professionals, and we wondered why the defense’s argument was not included,” Date said.
Date said the defendant was also dissatisfied with how the judges reached the verdict.
“More than the sentence itself, the defendant was unhappy because he felt his argument was not acknowledged,” the lawyer said.
Fujii, 72, felt the relatively young lineup of lay judges, who seemed to be in their 30s and 40s, worked against him, his lawyers said.
“Fujii mentioned that if the lay judges had been the same age as him, they may have sympathized with him more. He felt that if they had been 60 or 70, with that much life experience, they may have understood why he felt the need to suddenly bring out the knife,” Date said. The defendant has not yet decided whether he will appeal, he added.