As calls for speedy trials mount following a blue-ribbon panel proposal in June to overhaul the judiciary, the pace of work at the Tokyo District Court probably serves as “exhibit A” in the argument for reform.
As the lowest court in the nation’s political and economic nerve center, the Tokyo District Court handles by far the largest load of criminal and civil cases, everything from murder to corruption and abuse of power by public officials.
While the list of pending cases is long, the pace of work can only be described as glacial, and justice for some, particularly those involved in high-profile cases, can take many years to run its course.
According to Tokyo District Court data, four trials currently under way before the court have continued for more than 10 years.
These long trials exemplify a chief criticism by the authors of the final report the government’s Justice System Reform Council issued June 12, which singled out the slow-moving judiciary as a target for reform.
Consider the criminal trial of Hiromasa Ezoe, former chairman of the major information and job-placement agency Recruit Co., who pleaded not guilty to charges of bribing public officials in the stocks-for-favors scandal that rocked the political scene in the 1980s. He first took the stand in December 1989.
Eleven years and 309 hearings later, the trial still grinds on, setting new records for the highest number of hearings held.
Twelve people were indicted in the Recruit scandal.
Other than Ezoe and 71-year-old Kunio Takaishi, a former vice minister in the then-Education Ministry who is appealing a guilty verdict, all other defendants’ convictions have long been settled.
Ezoe’s defense lawyers attribute his lengthy trial to the complexity of his case and the large number of charges filed against the defendant, the central figure in the Recruit case.
While Ezoe’s lawyers say most of the time spent so far in court involves the investigation and challenges of evidence, critics put part of the blame on the defense, especially its “leave-no-stone-unturned” challenges in court.
In another marathon case, Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara, who allegedly orchestrated the deadly sarin attacks in the Tokyo subway system in 1995 and in Nagano Prefecture the previous year, has sat through 203 court hearings since he was first brought before the Tokyo District Court in April 1996.
But unlike trials in many other countries, court hearings in Japan are held sparingly. In the case of Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, the trials are held only three to four times a month.
At the current pace, prosecutors are looking to rest their case by the end of the year, and then come defense challenges of the state’s evidence.
By the time the evidence-investigation phase is over, the number of hearings in the Asahara case will probably have exceeded the record currently held by the Ezoe trial.
Little wonder, then, that some survivors of the nerve gas attack complain that by the time the trial is over, some of them will be dead.
Insiders in the judiciary point to the long intervals between court hearings as one reason for the sluggishness. The Justice System Reform Council itself has recommended that “trials, in principle, should be held over consecutive days.”
For that to happen, experts say Japan must establish a public criminal defense system where the defense counsel would be able to concentrate on individual criminal cases.
For now, defendants in criminal trials who cannot afford a lawyer get a state-appointed public defender, who typically has limited time to spread across a large caseload.
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