The mental and physical burden that lay judges bear in hearing potential death penalty cases has become a key focal point in the review of the de facto jury system.
Contentious issues relating to lay judges’ participation in cases punishable by death include having to commit to long court proceedings, as well as the difficulty in deciding whether a defendant should live or die.
The lay judge system was introduced in May 2009 with the aim of involving ordinary citizens in court trials.
Together with three professional judges, six citizens randomly selected from eligible voters examine murder and other serious criminal cases at district courts. Lay judges also participate in determining sentences.
The system is now being reviewed three years after its debut, as required by law.
With the expectation that death sentences delivered in lay judge trials will ultimately be finalized as appeals are exhausted, how participants feel about their decisions is increasingly becoming a matter of public debate.
In April, two men who served as lay judges in a complicated murder case spoke at a news conference after they and their colleagues at the Saitama District Court sentenced the defendant to death. The high-profile trial dealt with a woman accused of committing serial murders.
The men acknowledged that the trial was mentally taxing and affected their work, but neither criticized the lay judge system itself. The trial lasted 100 days, the longest case so far examined by citizen judges.
“The trial was long and complex, and it led me to do some soul-searching,” one of the men said.
The other said that although the trial placed a heavy burden on him, he felt a sense of accomplishment after it was completed.
Meanwhile, a professional judge who heard about the men’s comments characterized the trial as more successful than expected. The trial indicated that the citizen judge system functioned smoothly, he said.
But there is concern that problems can be overlooked if attention is overly focused on the opinions of citizen judges who are willing to speak in public.
“The greater the burden people feel, the more reluctant they are to express their opinions,” said Kiichi Nishino, a former judge who is now a professor at Niigata Law School. “We should assume that fundamental problems with this system are hidden in voiceless opinions.”
With executions of death-row inmates sentenced by lay judges eventually to be carried out, unease is gnawing at citizens who have delivered such verdicts.
A company employee who participated in a trial in the city of Nagano of one of three men sentenced to death for murder, indicated he felt the victim may not have been beyond reproach.
“The defendant did not appear to be an evil man, and I felt as if I could have become friends with him under different circumstances,” the former lay judge recalled.
When he happened to see an execution chamber on a television program, the man said he wondered how the defendant would feel walking to the gallows. He said he is tormented when he draws a mental picture of the defendant.
Meanwhile, a man who participated in an arson and murder trial in Osaka stressed that cases punishable by death should be examined by lay judges. Citizens’ involvement encourages increased information disclosure, he explained.
A major bone of contention in the Osaka case was whether execution by hanging amounts to “cruel punishment” banned under the Constitution. After watching a video of a mock execution in the courtroom, the lay judges concluded that hanging is constitutional.
The man who emphasized the need for citizen involvement said he did not personally feel a moral burden about the death sentence against the defendant because the decision was made collectively.
He acknowledged, however, that after the real execution actually takes place, “I may feel different.”