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Hirata trial highlights evolving court system

Plainer speech, swifter trials are direct result of using lay judges

by Setsuko Kamiya

Staff Writer

In the same courtroom where many of his fellow Aum Shinrikyo cult members were tried years before, Makoto Hirata was convicted and sentenced earlier this month.

Location aside, the legal process has moved on in the intervening years, from the makeup of the bench to the way proceedings are handled. Journalists who have followed the various Aum trials over the years have noted significant changes in the criminal court system since the introduction of lay judges in 2009.

Hirata, 48, who on March 7 was sentenced to nine years in prison for his involvement in the 1995 kidnapping of Tokyo notary Kiyoshi Kariya and two other crimes, was the first Aum defendant to be tried by three professional judges and six randomly selected citizen judges. Previously, only trained professional judges presided over cases and handed down verdicts.

While acknowledging the positive changes brought by the new system, journalists who have covered the Aum trials say the latest case failed to illuminate what it was in Hirata’s past that led him to join a cult whose followers, at the behest of founder Shoko Asahara, committed crimes in the name of religious training to reach a higher spiritual level.

Kenichi Furihata, a retired Asahi Shimbun reporter who covered the Aum trials for 16 years until 2011, said that compared with the previous system, it was clear that legal professionals used plain language and avoided jargon during the Hirata trial to make it easier for ordinary citizens to follow the proceedings.

“I could see that the legal professionals, especially the prosecution, were making an effort to be clear enough to convey what they were trying to argue to the lay judges,” said Furihata, who observed Hirata’s trial from the gallery. It was his first experience observing a lay judge trial.

Another obvious change was the scheduling. The sessions were held on consecutive days, rather than, as under the previous system, with gaps of several weeks.

The introduction of pretrial meetings has helped speed trials along. Now the prosecution and defense meet in court before the trial begins to discuss the facts and decide on the points of argument, as well as what evidence to adopt or who to call as witnesses. Previously, trials involving Aum Shinrikyo members began fairly quickly after the defendants were indicted, but the cases took years to conclude as the points of arguments were gradually narrowed down as the hearings dragged on.

Hirata’s trial, in contrast, lasted less than two months, opening on Jan. 16 and running for 20 sessions through Feb. 27 before the ruling was handed down March 7.

Experts say that the pretrial meetings not only make it easier for the lay judges to participate, but have also helped secure the defendant’s constitutional right to a speedy trial.

But Furihata said he felt the legal professionals may have narrowed down the points of argument too finely, while the presiding judge was too inflexible in sticking to the schedule.

“There were important things that needed to be questioned to understand the background of why Hirata did what he did, but that didn’t happen,” Furihata said.

“It’s a matter of principle that a trial decides the facts of a crime, followed by the sentencing if the court finds the accused guilty. But still, I wish they had dug deeper into the background because it’s very meaningful for society to understand why Aum followers did what they did.”

Freelance journalist Shoko Egawa expressed a similar opinion.

“The background behind the spate of crimes committed by the cult is very complicated and peculiar. But the trial didn’t look closely into the background, because the court was too focused on efficiency,” she said. “I feel there is difficulty in treating Aum trials like any other cases.”

Meanwhile, legal scholars said that allowing death row inmates to testify in court was a breakthrough made possible only through the lay judge system.

“Under the previous system, the judges would probably have followed the request of the Justice Ministry to question (the death row inmates) at the detention center, which was the case in the past,” said Satoru Shinomiya, a professor at Kokugakuin University Law School.

“My guess is that the presiding judge’s decision was based on the notion that the lay judges should hear from the death row inmates directly in the courtroom,” Shinomiya said. “This significant (decision) has helped bring down (the wall of) secrecy regarding the death penalty in Japan, including how death row inmates are treated.”

While sharing Shinomiya’s viewpoint, Egawa added that she thought the court went overboard with security measures.

Witnesses were hidden behind screens, and bulletproof barriers were erected when the death row inmates took the stand. The court claimed the steps were necessary to prevent remaining Aum followers from trying to snatch their fellow cultists, and to protect the privacy of some witnesses, media reported. The screens were also necessary to “keep (death row inmates) from being mentally disturbed,” according to media reports.

“In the previous Aum trials, including Asahara’s, the court held hearings in normal settings (without extra security measures). And there was no problem back then. It’s ridiculous to think that someone would try to free (the death row inmates, who are former senior figures of the cult),” she said.

Egawa also noted the screens did harm to the constitutional principle that trials be held in an open court. Eight of the 15 witnesses, including the three death row inmates, testified from behind a screen. Furthermore, the death row inmates told their lawyers that they didn’t need the screens to protect them, according to domestic media reports.

Egawa said the court should heed the criticism of its handling of the Hirata case as preparations are made to try two other former fugitives, Naoko Kikuchi and Katsuya Takahashi, under the lay judge system. Kikuchi’s hearing is scheduled to start May 8. The court has yet to set court dates for Takahashi, who is thought to have been deeply involved in the most serious of Aum’s crimes.