First lay judge trial kicks off in Tokyo

Defendant, 72, pleads guilty; Thursday ruling is scheduled


The first trial involving lay judges kicked off Monday in the Tokyo District Court with Katsuyoshi Fujii, 72, pleading guilty to murdering his neighbor, Mun Chun Ja, 66, in May.

Before introduction of the lay judge system, which entails six citizens sitting with three professional judges to try serious criminal trials, Japan was the only Group of Eight nation whose public did not participate in criminal trials, according to the Japan Federation of Bar Associations. Japan had a jury system between 1928 and 1943, but only on a limited basis.

Many people remain reluctant to participate in the new system, in which they will have to reach verdicts and hand down sentences, including the death penalty, opinion polls show.

Fujii’s trial is scheduled to last three days, followed by closed-door deliberations by the lay and professional judges, who are to decide the verdict based on evidence, and the possible sentence.

The verdict must be decided by a conditional majority vote where at least one professional judge must be included in the majority decision. The ruling is expected Thursday.

At about 1:20 p.m., the three professional judges first entered the courtroom and took their seats, followed by Fujii, who was escorted by guards to his seat next to his lawyers. The presiding judge, Yasuhiro Akiba, ordered them to remove his handcuffs and the rope around his waist.

Once Fujii was seated, two of the professional judges went out again to invite the six lay judges in. Five women and one man entered and took their seats on each side of the professional judges, who wore their traditional gowns. Three alternate lay judges, all men, followed the six lay judges in and sat behind them.

Previously, defendants entered the courtroom after all the judges took their seats. The change in the process was a compromise made by the Justice Ministry after the Japan Federation of Bar Associations argued that seeing defendants in handcuffs could have a negative influence on the lay judges. Defendants also used to sit in front of the lawyers.

According to the indictment, Fujii on May 1 stabbed Mun with a survival knife several times, causing her to die from loss of blood.

Mun was of Korean descent who also went by the name Haruko Bun and whose Japanese name was Chie Kojima.

In their opening statement, the prosecutors used a PowerPoint presentation to argue that Fujii, who had been on bad terms with Mun for a long time, took a knife out of his tool box during a verbal altercation to scare her.

They said Fujii has a criminal record, had a strong intent to kill Mun and chased her around with a knife, shouting he was going to kill her.

The defense, also using PowerPoint, said that although they will not deny that Fujii was the culprit, they will argue that he did not mean to murder her, did not chase her or shout that he was going to kill her.

They added that his previous criminal record had nothing to do with this incident.

Both parties tried to use plain language by elaborating on certain legal jargon. The lay judges appeared to listen intently as they used documents distributed by both parties to follow along with the presentations.

The prosecutors and defense are both expected to introduce four witnesses, including Mun’s son.

Earlier in the day, the court selected the lay judges — a process closed to the public to protect their privacy.

According to the court, 47 prospective lay judges showed up at the courthouse in Chiyoda Ward as of 9:10 a.m. out of 49 who were summoned.

The law sets a maximum ¥100,000 fine for people who fail to show up to be a lay judge candidate on the designated date “without due reasons.”

The candidates were given an orientation session. After a DVD presentation explaining what they were expected to do as lay judges, the candidates were briefed on the case by a court official and were asked to respond to a questionnaire asking whether they knew the defendant, the victim or their families, or if any serious hardship prevented them from serving through Thursday.

Afterward, presiding Judge Akiba greeted the candidates. In the presence of the two other judges and the prosecution and defense, Akiba directed a few questions to the group. Three people were asked to be interviewed privately.

After the interview, the judges, prosecutors and lawyers discussed whether any of the candidates should be dismissed due to questions of impartiality. The prosecution and defense are each entitled to excuse up to four people without giving reasons. It was not disclosed Monday how many were actually dismissed.

Information from Kyodo added