HIROSHIMA – The quick trial of a Peruvian man that ended Tuesday is an example of what to expect with the new legal steps to speed up proceedings.
The Hiroshima District Court’s quick sentencing of Jose Manuel Torres Yagi, 34, to life for sexually assaulting and killing a 7-year-old girl followed a trial that spanned only 50 days and reflects new pretrial procedures introduced to speed up trials in preparation for the May 2009 debut of the “lay judge” system, in which members of the public will rule on trials along with sitting judges.
The new rules narrow the points of argument before a trial starts. In the pretrial huddle, lawyers for each side meet with the judge, a plea may be entered as well as evidence, although this may close the door on later evidence being presented during a trial.
“The sentence was not what I had hoped for, but I feel calm with the quick conclusion” of the trial, said Kenichi Kinoshita, 39, the victim’s father, after the trial adjourned. His daughter, Airi, was slain in Hiroshima last November.
A lawyer for Yagi said, “Criminal trials have undergone a drastic change.”
A veteran penal judge said, “It is a model case of cooperation between the court, prosecutors and lawyers.”
The Hiroshima District Public Prosecutors’ Office indicted Yagi in December and the court handed down its decision within about seven months.
After the new pretrial procedures, the trial began May 15 and the lasted five days. In the end, lawyers spend a total of seven days in court.
The Supreme Court says a serious crime like Yagi’s requires an average of 9.4 days of court sittings and it should take about 13 months from indictment to verdict.
At the fourth trial session on May 18, there was a scene hitherto rarely observed in criminal trials. Presiding Judge Hiromichi Iwakura declared he would not accept into evidence a deposition taken by investigators in which Yagi said he intended to kill the girl.
“I will turn it down because it is not needed,” he said.
A deposition is considered by courts to be the “king of proof.”
If during a trial, a defendant retracts a confession made in a deposition, the court will then weigh whether the confession was made voluntarily and whether it is valid. Confessions have often been the grounds for a conviction when other evidence is lacking.
Iwakura refused to accept the deposition, but nonetheless ruled that Yagi had a definite intent to kill.
Legal experts said Iwakura took that approach because when the lay-judge system debuts, statements made in court will be given more weight.
Osamu Watanabe, a professor at Konan University’s law school, said that if the Hiroshima District Court trial had been held with lay judges, the ruling would have been made two weeks after the first session.
“There were no high-handed proceedings (in Yagi’s trial) and the case will be an example in the future,” Watanabe said.
However, other experts are already criticizing the new system.
“This was a serious case but not complicated. The future task is how to smoothly proceed with a difficult case with large points of contention,” one penal judge said.
Yagi’s lawyers wanted him to get a psychiatric examination to see if he was mentally competent to be held liable for his actions, but the court refused at the fourth session, saying an exam wasn’t necessary.
An exam would have extended the trial.
Pretrial requests for psychiatric examinations will be possible in lay-judge trials but it is unclear how to carry out such exams.
Takeshi Nishimura, a lawyer who has studied the lay-judge system, said, “The judicial community has yet to fully study how judges will make a decision about the necessity of examinations by maintaining the principle of doing away with prejudgment.”
Konan University’s Watanabe said: “In complicated and old cases, it will be necessary to accept depositions taken during the investigation phase. A version of proof that citizens can understand is needed.”
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