Reform prosecution inquest system

The Kobe District Court on Feb. 20 dismissed a case against a former senior police officer indicted on a charge of professional negligence resulting in deaths and injuries in connection with a 2001 fatal mass crush of people who came out to see a fireworks display in Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture.

Mr. Kazuaki Sakaki, then deputy head of the Akashi Police Station, had been indicted under the revised prosecution inquest system introduced in May 2009. He faced “mandatory indictment” in April 2010 after a prosecution inquest committee, an 11-member citizens’ judicial panel, voted in favor of indictment for a second time, overturning the prosecution’s earlier decision not to indict.

The prosecution inquest system is meaningful in that it allows citizens to have a say on decisions made by the prosecution. In the Akashi case, the then deputy head of the police station had to appear in a trial and the trial helped to shed light on the way the police worked out a plan to control the crowd.

But the case, along with other mandatory indictment cases, underlines the need to review the system. Of the seven cases of mandatory indictment so far, initial trials have been held in four of the cases — resulting in not-guilty sentences in two of them, a guilty sentence in one of them and one dismissal (the Akashi case).

On the night of July 21, 2001, a pedestrian bridge became overcrowded following a fireworks event and 11 people were crushed to death, while 247 others suffered injuries. A private security firm was in charge of crowd control.

Five people, including the police station’s area officer, who was at the scene, have been convicted. The prosecution indicted neither the police station chief, who has since passed away, nor Mr. Sakaki on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

The statute of limitations for charges of professional negligence is five years, but when the citizens’ panel voted in favor of indicting Mr. Sakaki in April 2010, it insisted that he was complicit with the area officer and that because the trial of the area officer was being held at the time of the panel’s voting, the clock had ceased to tick on the statute of limitations. But the Kobe District Court dismissed the case, saying that Mr. Sakaki was not an accomplice and, therefore, the statute of limitations had run out.

The prosecution inquest system is seriously flawed in several respects:

First, those who face possible indictment are not given a chance to defend themselves before a citizens’ judicial panel. This is unfair and should be changed.

Second, under the current system, only one lawyer provides legal advice to panel members. Lawyers representing those who face possible indictment should be allowed to state their opinions to panel members.

Third, panel members largely base their discussions on evidence collected by the prosecution. But what if the evidence is false? Lawyers who act as prosecutors in the case of mandatory indictment do not have ample time or resources to collect new evidence. Clearly, the inquest of prosecution system is unfair and needs drastic reform.