Those off lay judge hook feel relieved

Preparing for trial duty exacted emotional toll


Relief was the overriding emotion of the candidates who weren’t picked in a final lottery draw Monday to participate in the first criminal trial under the new lay judge system.

“I was glad because I had been nervous and worried, as I don’t have any legal knowledge and I wasn’t sure if I could make a proper decision regarding someone else’s crime,” a 31-year-old computer firm employee from Nerima Ward said at a news conference after being told by the court he was free to go home.

The six who were chosen sat alongside the three professional judges in the murder trial of Katsuyoshi Fujii. The trial is to run through Thursday.

The five dismissed candidates who agreed to speak to reporters admitted they had been nervous and not keen to sit on the bench. But some said their release was anticlimactic because they had been prepared to be picked.

“Although I was relieved because it is a heavy responsibility, I had been preparing myself emotionally, so it was a bit disappointing,” said a 36-year-old housewife from Katsushika Ward.

Her husband had taken the day off and they had found a care center for their mentally disabled son in case she was chosen and needed to be away from home for three more days, she said.

Lay judge candidates will be given ¥8,000 per day during the selection process and ¥10,000 on days they attend trials. Half a day of service will draw half of those amounts.

A 48-year-old computer firm employee from Edogawa Ward said he had trouble sleeping the night before.

“I read through the documents that the courts had sent, and I was so restless I couldn’t sleep until 3 a.m.,” he said, adding he had also watched DVDs related to court cases in the runup to Monday.

Both he and the other company employee were given special leave from work for the day, which would have been extended had they been chosen.

The dismissed candidates agreed that the selection process went smoothly and they were treated courteously, being supplied with magazines and tea during breaks with relaxing music playing in the background.

But all the candidates and the professionals seemed nervous and no one made small talk, they said.

“Those who were chosen in the lottery were taken through the next process in a matter-of-fact manner, but among them some slightly hung their heads low,” said 65-year-old Masayoshi Habu of Nakano Ward, who runs an estate agent business and had given a summer vacation notice to his clients this week.

Although the candidates said they felt mainly relief at not being picked, they agreed the experience made them more aware of court matters.

“It made me think that I or my family could be involved in such a case at any time, and I feel that I should build up my knowledge in the future,” said the man from Edogawa Ward.

“When I was summoned, I thought about being involved in a murder trial and about the feelings of the victim and the family of the accused. And I was grateful that I was leading a peaceful, happy life,” the Katsushika Ward housewife said.

Some suggested that instead of the current system, in which candidates are summoned and selected at random, those who are interested in becoming lay judges should be chosen first.

But most said they regarded the experience as positive.

“The odds are really low and I was interested in court cases, so I was glad” to be summoned, said a company employee in his 20s.

“I did feel resistant at being halfway forced to come, but I told myself that I had a responsibility as a citizen,” said Masayoshi Habu from Nakano Ward.

“I had felt distant from court cases, but I felt closer once I received the summons,” he said. “I hope to be more interested in such matters in the future.”

Meanwhile, 2,382 people lined up for the courtroom’s 58 seats by lot, with Satoru Kawamura, 26, who plans to take the bar exam, saying, “I want to observe how criminal trials change with the participation of citizen judges.”

Shizue Takahashi, who lost her husband in the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, was also in line. “I hope to witness how the deliberations go from the viewpoint of the victims’ side,” she said.

The leadup to lay judge trials

• 1928-1943 — Juries are used on a limited basis.

• May 3, 1947 — The postwar Constitution takes effect.

• July 27, 1999 — The government convenes a panel on judicial reform.

• June 12, 2001 — The panel proposes that “saiban-in” (lay judges) join professional judges in trying serious criminal cases.

• May 21, 2004 — A law to introduce the lay judge system is enacted.

• May 22, 2007 — The law is revised to clear lay judges from extremely long assignments when a defendant faces multiple charges.

• Jan. 11, 2008 — The Cabinet endorses an ordinance setting out grounds for exemption from lay judge service.

• April 1, 2009 — Lawmakers from both the ruling and opposition camps who oppose the lay judge system demand a review of the system.

• May 21 — The law on lay judges comes into effect.

• Aug. 3 — The first trial under the lay judge system starts.

Information from Kyodo added