Lay judges’ moral dilemma

Agroup of 20 citizens who served as lay judges submitted a petition in mid-February to Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki calling for an immediate halt to capital punishment and greater disclosure of information on various matters related to executions. Among them were three former lay judges who took part in writing rulings that imposed death sentences on defendants. Tanigaki should squarely respond to the petition because the citizens who submitted the petition felt agony from the possibility of having to hand down a death sentence or from the actual experience of having given such a sentence.

Former lay judge Masayoshi Taguchi, who headed the group, said that some of the members who handed down death sentences are “feeling guilty that they will sooner or later become ‘indirect murderers’ of human beings.”

In lay judge trials, 20 defendants were given death sentences by the end of 2013 and the sentences for four of them have been finalized. It is becoming a real possibility that defendants who underwent lay judge trials will be executed, thus increasing the psychological and moral dilemma placed on lay judges who participated in the trials.

Although capital punishment imposes a heavy psychological and moral burden on lay judges and although it is irreversible once it is carried out, the system is surrounded by secrecy. The justice ministry started announcing how many inmates were executed on a particular day only from November 1998 and began disclosing the names of the executed inmates and the places where they were executed from December 2007.

Justice Minister Keiko Chiba, who ordered the first execution under the Democratic Party of Japan government in July 2010, opened the place of execution at the Tokyo Detention House to mass media the following month. She also started a study group within the Justice Ministry to discuss capital punishment.

The four justice ministers who followed Chiba refrained from ordering executions. Thus under the DPJ government, no executions were carried out from late July 2010 until late March 2012, when they resumed. The study group initiated by Chiba was also terminated. Tanigaki from the Liberal Democratic Party, who became justice minister in December 2012, has ordered the execution of eight death-row inmates.

The 20 former lay judges said in their petition that if executions are carried out without adequate information disclosure and wide public discussions on capital punishment, the psychological pain of lay judges will become too much of a burden.

For example, the public is not provided with information on the standards the justice minister uses in selecting death-row inmates for execution. They also do not know how death-row inmates are treated until their execution and why they are notified of their hanging just hours in advance. The Justice Ministry has so far given no clear explanations about these points.

The petition said that unless the details surrounding execution are disclosed and wide-ranging public discussions are freely carried out on capital punishment in general and Japan’s system of capital punishment in particular, executions should be halted for the time being. In a study group on the lay judge system set up within the Justice Ministry, a majority opinion in 2013 held that lay judges should not participate in capital crime cases trials in view of the psychological and moral burden it places on them. The petition seems reasonable and Tanigaki should respond with sincerity.

  • phu

    This is ridiculous. Without arguing one way or another, people have presented many reasons for abolishing the death penalty. The idea that “the psychological pain of lay judges” is a good reason to do so is completely wrong: If anything, it’s an argument for suspending the lay judge system on cases where the death penalty may be sought.

    It’s incredibly short-sighted to look at this in the context of the judge’s potential misgivings when there are human lives at stake… and as long as Japan has the death penalty, that means it’s considered a valid punishment, which lay judges have the obligation to consider fairly based on the evidence presented.

    If lay judges are incapable of properly applying capital punishment as prescribed by law, then there are other problems than the presence of the death penalty, and they should be dealt with directly.

    • Andrew Sheldon

      If you accept that killing people is ok in certain circumstances, then you need to establish a system to do it. Some people are questioning whether lay judges are ready for the task. That’s not a reason to necessarily suspend killings, though its a strong argument if people are being ‘permanently’ killed.