Actor’s trial to test lay judges’ neutrality

Sex, drugs, death, media frenzy and Oshio denial

by Setsuko Kamiya

A test case for the nascent lay judge system got under way Friday at the Tokyo District Court as a celebrity defendant already crucified in the public realm now faces citizen judges, raising questions of whether they can render a judgment free of media influence.

Actor Manabu Oshio pleaded not guilty to giving the synthetic drug MDMA to a woman who died in August 2009 while they were in a Tokyo apartment, and to failing to save her life by not calling an ambulance immediately after she fell critically ill from an overdose.

It is the first high-profile case in which a celebrity is being tried by a combination of lay and professional judges since the new criminal trial system began in August 2009.

The drug-and-sex scandal involving a popular actor and the death of a 30-year-old bar hostess has received intense media coverage since last year. The lay judges will be asked to overcome any influence by the reports and decide the 32-year-old Oshio’s fate based on the evidence.

As the trial got under way, Oshio, wearing a dark suit, white shirt and blue tie, admitted obtaining MDMA from a friend but denied he gave any to Kaori Tanaka.

“I tried to revive her but couldn’t,” Oshio said, claiming he performed artificial resuscitation and heart massage as her condition deteriorated.

He also stated that Tanaka took MDMA that she had brought herself.

“I am not the one who gave her the drug, so I don’t have responsibility of her acute MDMA poisoning. I’m innocent,” he told the court.

Oshio, whose request for bail has been turned down, is being held at the Tokyo Detention House. When asked by the presiding judge, he admitted he was unemployed.

His hair was longer than the last time he appeared in front of the media, at his trial in October when he was convicted of possessing and using MDMA, and given a suspended sentence.

For seven days, the nine-judge panel will hear evidence and decide whether the prosecution can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was Oshio who gave her the drug, commonly known as Ecstasy, and that his failure to call an ambulance right away contributed to her death.

Four men and two women were chosen as lay judges earlier in the day. The court expects to reach a verdict Sept. 17.

Oshio stands accused of acquiring MDMA from his acquaintance and giving some to Tanaka when the two had sex in an apartment in the Roppongi district on Aug. 2, 2009. Oshio admitted possessing another illegal drug, called TFMPP.

During their opening statement, the prosecutors said Oshio failed to call 119 right away when Tanaka showed signs of overdosing on the MDMA, which might have saved her life.

Instead he phoned several friends and told them something was wrong with the woman.

The prosecutors said he performed cardiac massage and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but he never called paramedics.

They also said Oshio did not want to be found with the body or the drugs, so he asked his manager to assume that role. He also allegedly asked his friends to obtain a drug that would remove traces of MDMA from his body.

Meanwhile, Oshio’s defense team asked the lay judgesto focus only on theevidence entered into thetrial.

“The media have portrayed Oshio very negatively, but please put away speculation and prejudice,” one of the lawyers said in their opening statement.

“Please look carefully at the evidence and (the testimony of) the witnesses with an open mind,” he said. “The prosecution has the burden of proof. This means that, when in doubt, you must give the defendant the benefit of the doubt.”

The defense team said Tanaka had access to drugs because as she had numerous yakuza acquaintances. They also said Oshio tried to save Tanaka’s life when she became seriously ill, and that she died earlier than when prosecutors claim.

Before the trial started, 27 of the 34 people summoned to the court went through the lay judge selection process.

A company employee in his 30s from Katsushika Ward who was not chosen said he was surprised to find out at the orientation session that he had been called for Oshio’s case.

“I knew from news reports that his trial was starting today, but I had no idea that I was called for this case,” he said. “It’s a pity. I wanted to do it. I’ve been interested in serving in the lay judge system so I was willing to do it. Knowing that it was a case of a celebrity, I thought it would be even more interesting.”

He said that during the selection process they had to respond to a questionnaire that asked if they had any relationship with the defendant.

There were no questions about whether they had heard about Oshio through media reports, he said.

“I think it’s impossible to put all prejudice aside,” the man said. “But I did think that if I were selected, I would try to hear both sides of the story and decide from a neutral position.”