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The Supreme Court has upheld two separate rulings that overturned death sentences handed down in lay judge trials to two men facing robbery-murder charges.

It is the first time a death penalty issued by a panel involving citizen judges has been nullified by the Supreme Court since the lay judge system was introduced in Japan in May 2009 to reflect “common sense” in criminal trials, which have often been criticized for being difficult to comprehend and out of touch with popular sentiment.

On the decision reached Tuesday, the top court said a death sentence is “an ultimate punishment that takes the defendant’s life” and judges “need to carefully consider it and show concrete evidence” that the punishment cannot be helped.

“It has no meaning to compare in detail (the cases) with legal precedent in the past, but we have to give sufficient consideration so that they will not be treated unfairly,” the top court said, adding that there is a need to balance judgments between professional judges and ordinary citizens.

All three judges of the No. 2 petty bench of the Supreme Court reached the same conclusion, sources said.

The two cases involved the murder of a 74-year-old man in an apartment in Tokyo’s Minamiaoyama district in November 2009, and the murder of a 21-year-old university student at her home in Chiba Prefecture in October 2009.

The Tokyo and Chiba district courts sentenced the two men to death in 2011, in separate lay judge trials. But the rulings were overturned in 2013 by the Tokyo High Court, where the cases were examined only by professional judges.

As for the murder case in Tokyo, the Supreme Court took note that the district court attached weight to the defendant’s previous criminal record, in which he killed his wife and child following a quarrel, but said it “did not have much to do” with the 2009 murder.

It also said it cannot agree to render a death sentence on the defendant charged with the murder in Chiba even though he had a criminal record of robbery in the past and repeated similar crimes immediately after he served his term.

“It was only one person who was killed and the murder seemed not premeditated. It is difficult to cite (his behavior) as the reason to choose the death penalty,” the top court said in remarks that are in line with conventional judgment standards.

A total of 22 death sentences have so far been handed down in lay judge trials, which is overseen by a panel of three professional judges and six ordinary citizens.

Masato Takahashi, a lawyer working on measures to support victims of crime, expressed disappointment with the outcome.

“In both cases the murders were extremely heinous and I believe the district courts handed down reasonable rulings, based on concrete and specific evidence,” Takahashi said. “And the way the Supreme Court upheld the high court’s rulings, that were made without thorough examination, is just unacceptable.”

He also pointed out that in the past, death sentences were rarely imposed if a case involved only one victim. But this was likely to change with the introduction of the lay judge trials, which allowed the judicial system to better reflect ordinary citizens’ views.

This decision “simply undermines the lay judge system,” Takahashi said.

However, Hiroshi Kadono, a former chief judge with the Tokyo High Court and a professor at the Hosei University Graduate School of Law, praised the Supreme Court’s ruling as “highly adequate.”

Kadono said that the “death sentence, as an ultimate punishment, should be sought based on a careful and fair judgment.”

The Supreme Court’s decision “may trigger criticism from those claiming that judging based on precedent will undermine the lay judge system, but I don’t think it merits that criticism,” he said.

Kadono pointed out that all factors in imposing the death sentence have been taken into account, and the judgment was made based on careful consideration of all those factors.

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