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A teacher at a private high school in Kawasaki was surprised earlier this year to find that two-thirds of his social science class had negative views concerning defendants’ right to silence during criminal trials.

“I presented them a newspaper story about the death sentence handed to the suspect in the 1998 curry poisoning case in Wakayama, along with a critic’s comments in the newspaper condemning her for remaining silent,” remarked Hiroshi Watanabe of Daini High School, which is affiliated with Hosei University.

Most of his students agreed with the critic.

Watanabe is worried over what he views as bias toward the exercising of a constitutional right as he believes fair trials may be threatened if a proposed jury system is implemented in Japan due to a lack of public knowledge about the law.

On Dec. 11, the Wakayama District Court sentenced Masumi Hayashi to death for killing four people and poisoning 63 others by lacing a curry with arsenic at a town fair.

Defense lawyers insisted on her innocence, arguing that Hayashi had neither the motive nor the opportunity to poison the curry — but she refused to testify during her trial.

Two-thirds of the 40 students in Watanabe’s class said that Hayashi should have vocally defended herself, or that her silence denoted her guilt, or that she was defiant and showed no remorse.

These views reflect those of Ryuzo Saki, the critic who wrote in December: “Why didn’t she insist on her innocence in her own words? Human beings communicate through words, and in this sense, I cannot find any humanity in the suspect.”

Watanabe said, “We need to remember that these students, who showed negative views toward suspects’ right guaranteed under the Constitution, are future candidates for ‘citizen judges’ to be introduced under the government-proposed judicial reform.”

As parts of efforts to reflect public “common sense” in court procedures, the government’s Judicial Reform Council has proposed a jury-like system under which decisions in serious criminal cases such as murder are made by judges and members of the public.

The judges and jurors, who would be chosen at random from voter lists, would have equal authority in deciding verdicts and punishments in criminal cases.

Watanabe, who worked for the Japan Federation of Bar Associations before becoming a teacher, said, “I expect the new system to lead to fairer trials, with the public working to protect the rights of suspects fully.”

But he is worried that false accusations may increase as the public tends to believe that arrested people are guilty due partly to biased crime coverage, which depends disproportionately on investigative sources.

Also, given the mounting calls for tougher penalties meted out for vicious crimes, jurors could issue punitive verdicts, he added.

Some human rights activists say only life imprisonment or the death penalty will be handed down if the citizen judge system is introduced under the current circumstances.

The panel has said that news media will need to consider how they cover criminal cases so as not to create bias among potential jurors. News organizations, however, have called for that suggestion to be quashed, saying it could be used to restrict reporting.

“I believe we social science teachers must teach students legal rules, including rights guaranteed for suspects and defendants as well as the principles of presumption of innocence and the benefit of doubt in favor of the defendant, so that we can realize fair trials,” Watanabe said.

Some students who initially had negative views of suspects’ rights changed their minds after taking part in class lectures and discussions, he said.

Tokyo lawyer Yukio Yamashita is also critical of the panel’s proposal.

“The panel ignores problems in investigative procedures, such as long detentions in substitute prisons and threats to obtain false confessions,” he said.

Moreover, courts may push speedy decisions to liberate jurors as soon as possible, he added.

“Under the proposal, suspects are not allowed to refuse the (jury) system, and this indicates that it will not be for defendants,” Yamashita said, adding he is still cautious about accepting the proposal.