The recent court case of actor Manabu Oshio shows that ordinary people can do a good job judging a high-profile trial despite wall-to-wall media coverage and intense pressure to understand technical evidence, according to legal experts and the lay judges themselves.
The heavy media presence continued throughout the trial — the first involving a celebrity under the 1-year-old lay judge system — at the Tokyo District Court, which lasted seven sessions spread out over two weeks and saw testimony from 19 witnesses, including medical experts.
Despite fears they would be unduly influenced by the media, the lay judges who handed down the 2 1/2-year prison sentence Friday said they are confident they reached a fair judgment based on the evidence.
Oshio, 32, immediately filed an appeal.
“He has the right to appeal, so he can do so if he wants to. But I want to say that we handed down this sentence not because he was a celebrity. We would have handed down the same if the defendant was a regular person,” said lay judge No. 5, a company employee in his 30s.
“Honestly speaking, I didn’t have a good impression of the defendant. Initially, I wasn’t sure if I could compose myself and maintain objectivity,” he said in the post-trial news conference. “But as I listened to the witnesses, the fact that (the defendant was) Oshio didn’t matter anymore. I focused on the crime committed rather than the person, and thought hard to decide what the appropriate punishment was for what happened.”
The judges found that Oshio had the responsibility to call for an ambulance on Aug. 2, 2009, when 30-year-old Kaori Tanaka showed signs of an overdose after the two took the illegal drug MDMA, commonly known as Ecstasy, that he gave her and had sex in an apartment in Tokyo’s Roppongi district.
The judges blamed Oshio for failing to take immediate action out of fear of being caught for using illegal drugs and to protect his fame.
Lay judge No. 3, a company employee, said she avoided the news during the trial.
“I didn’t watch TV or read the news on the Internet because I wasn’t sure what kind of information I would get. I did so because I wanted to be fair, and stick to my own opinion,” she said.
Other lay judges said they were exposed to news reports but were confident this didn’t influence them.
“The presiding judge told us in the beginning to decide on our own based only on the evidence and testimony in the court, so I did,” said lay judge No. 2, a self-employed man in his 50s.
The case was also deemed difficult for people outside the legal profession because they had to reach a decision based on the testimony of expert witnesses.
Emergency and critical care specialists who testified for the prosecution said there was a 90 percent chance Tanaka’s life could have been saved if paramedics had gotten there quickly. But the expert witnesses called by Oshio’s lawyers said that based on Tanaka’s autopsy records her chance of survival was between 10 and 60 percent.
In a careful assessment of the expert opinions, the ruling said it is reasonable to doubt that Tanaka’s life would have been saved even if an ambulance had been called, dismissing one of the arguments made by the prosecution.
Prosecutors had demanded a six-year prison term.
The lay judges said they were worried at first if they could understand the technical details but agreed they eventually did, pointing out that the prosecutors and defense lawyers questioned the witnesses on the premise that the judges were not experts.
“I didn’t have any medical knowledge, but I listened to the opinions of the other lay judges and was able to reach my own conclusion. There is significance in having this many (lay judges deliberate),” said lay judge No. 6, who said she is a homemaker.
Asked if they felt that they had a good grasp of the basic principles of criminal trials, lay judge No. 1 replied that the professional judges initially explained to them that prosecutors have the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
“When I heard that I strongly felt, ‘wow, that’s how it works.’ Unless meeting that (criteria) it could lead to a wrongful conviction,” lay judge No. 1 said.
Satoru Shinomiya, a lawyer and professor at Kokugakuin University Law School, observed that the lay judges in the Oshio trial eased previous concerns that media coverage can influence members of the public taking part in the new court duty.
Shinomiya, who took part in designing the system, said he has always believed lay people would not be prejudiced in reaching judgments, and that freedom of the press must be protected as well.
But he also said the media should be more aware that accuracy and fairness are now more important than ever when covering trials.
The ruling also showed that lay judges can carefully assess expert opinions, Shinomiya said.
“What’s expected of the lay people as judges is not to become experts themselves, but to decide whether they believe the witnesses and their testimony,” he said, observing that the lay judges in the Oshio trial appear to have done just that.
Lay judge No. 4, a self-employed man in his 30s, said he was nervous in the beginning and it was a lot of work, but in the end he considered it a good experience.
“If another chance arrives, I’d do it again. I think the public shouldn’t be afraid and serve when they are summoned,” he said.
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