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Provide details on hangings or halt them: ex-lay judges

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

A group of former lay judges submitted a petition to the justice minister Monday calling for an immediate halt to capital punishment and greater transparency on how it’s carried out.

The petition was compiled by 20 citizens who have participated in criminal trials as lay judges.

Some of the members helped condemn defendants to the gallows and are now “feeling guilty that they will sooner or later become ‘indirect murderers’ of (fellow) human beings,” said former lay judge Masayoshi Taguchi, who is spearheading the move.

Japan and the United States are the only two countries in the Group of Eight industrialized nations that use capital punishment, although in the U.S., executions are generally carried out at the state level. Japan is often criticized by human rights organizations for the opaque way it selects death-row inmates for execution. Unlike other countries, the inmates are not told when they are going to die.

This secrecy surrounding the system is largely responsible for the ex-lay judges’ distress, Taguchi said. They are tormented by the role they play in contributing to someone’s execution despite knowing very little about how it takes place, he said.

Some Japanese even mistakenly think inmates are being electrocuted. They don’t even know how death-row inmates are customarily treated till their execution, or why they are notified of their hanging just hours in advance, he added.

“There are so many things about the practice that remain unknown to the public. If the government is asking its citizens to participate in the trials and pass judgment, then it should play fairer and do its utmost to disclose more details,” Taguchi said.

The petition, however, is not meant to deny capital punishment or demand its permanent abolishment, Taguchi stressed. In fact, among the 20 who compiled the letter, some personally support the death penalty.

The petition’s primary purpose is to call for greater disclosure of the details surrounding executions and urge the public to discuss the system more freely. Unless these goals are achieved, executions should be halted for the time being, the petition states.

“I hope the petition will make people realize that it’s their basic responsibility, as citizens living in a democracy, to supervise what authorities are doing,” Taguchi said.

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    For a long time one criticism of Japan has been the paucity of broad and deep public discussion of the use of capital punishment here, a lack of transparency in the process, and the treatment of convicts in detention in general. Successive governments have trotted out statistics declaring overwhelming public support for execution. But we know that the statistics are easily skewered depending on the wording of questions and the information provided to interviewees. Statistics don’t mean nearly as much as the people who wield them think they do. Too often it seems to have fallen to foreign contributors to Readers in Council to give these matters anything approaching critical public attention. I don’t mean to asses the merits or demerits of the various pro and con arguments. I just mean an unfettered discussion of the matter as an important social issue largely ignored by Japanese and concealed by the government.

    Now in “Provide details on hangings or halt them: ex-lay judges” (February 18) some former lay judges who even participated in death penalty cases lament “feeling guilty that they will sooner or later become ‘indirect murderers’ of fellow human beings.” I was disappointed to read that because it doesn’t speak well of people’s understanding of society or the judicial sentencing issue. Of course judges are partly responsible for killing fellow human beings! Don’t they know it? Capital punishment is judicial state murder. Do they think the law exempts individual citizens from culpability?

    None of us is innocent. We like to think we are, but the point is that by supporting the polity through taxes and participation in society we are each of us accomplices in the actions the the polity. I pay taxes in Japan. The Japanese government judicially murders heinous criminals. Therefore I know that I am an accomplice in murder (judicial murder by the state). I am a participant in the society that executes people. It always angers me when the paper quotes judges who hand down death sentences with the excruciatingly lame excuse that the sentence “can’t be
    helped.” That is a common Japanese excuse for all manner of evil.

    It is very disappointing that this elementary lesson, which people ought to learn in high school, is still not understood by adults who serve as lay judges. The debate must proceed with the understanding that we are responsible for what we do as well as for what the government does on
    our behalf.

  • Charlie Sommers

    The death penalty is nothing but revenge killing conducted by the state. No problems are solved by its use and there is always the possibility that it is being carried out on someone who was falsely accused, and wrongfully convicted. Keeping someone in the dark about the moment of their execution is particularly heinous. Japan, and America, should join the ranks of the civilized world and abandon this anachronism.