Improving the lay judge system

Four years have passed since the lay judge system began on May 21, 2009. When it was introduced, there was fear that people might not fully support the system. But that has proven to not be the case, and the lay judge system has brought desirable changes in criminal proceedings. As of the end of March, nearly 40,000 citizens had served as lay judges or backup lay judges. Lay judge trials took an average of 6.3 days. More than 10 cases took more than 40 days.

Some cases, though, show that the judiciary has failed to consider sufficiently how to help lay judges who suffer emotional problems after being exposed to graphic evidence of heinous crimes.

In the past, public prosecutors’ records of suspects’ and witnesses’ oral statements played a central role in criminal trials. After the lay judge system started, courts started to pay more attention to oral statements made and objective evidence presented during trials. In response, public prosecutors have started to disclose more evidence. To ensure fair trials, public prosecutors should be legally required to disclose all of the evidence in their possession to defense lawyers. Prosecutors who fail to do should be punished.

The police and the prosecution have begun to electronically record, on a trial basis, at least part of the interrogation process for a suspect. This practice should be expanded so all interrogations are electronically recorded in their entirety to reduce the chance of false confessions. The scope of such recordings should also be expanded to cover witnesses’ statements.

Some citizens serving as lay judges have been exposed to evidence depicting gruesome crime scenes. In some of these cases, they’ve felt that they’ve had no alternative but to pass death sentences. So far, lay judges have handed down 17 of them.

In July 2012, lay judges at the Osaka District Court handed down a 20 year prison sentence to a man with Asperger’s syndrome, a type of autism, for committing murder even though the prosecution had only demanded 16 years. That ruling came under criticism, and the Osaka High Court later reduced the sentence to 14 years.

This case highlighted the importance of public prosecutors and defense lawyers fully explaining to lay judges the effects of any mental illnesses or other medical conditions that defendants may have and how they might have influenced their behavior.

One woman lay judge from Fukushima Prefecture suffered a stress disorder after being shown a graphic color photo of a murder scene during a March trial. She later filed a suit demanding state compensation for her mental trauma. The judiciary should improve psychological support for lay judges, such as keeping psychology counselors on staff who can provide immediate counseling for lay judges who suffer a serious psychological shock during a trial.

Currently lifetime gag orders are imposed on lay judges. This not only adds to their burden but also prevents others from benefitting from their experiences. Lay judges should be allowed, to a certain extent, to speak about discussions held among judges on the condition that they do not disclose the identities of the judges. The government should discuss revisions to the lay judge law.