In preparation for the start of a new criminal court system next May, 295,000 Japanese have been notified that they are listed as prospective lay judges. Given the media coverage of the recent fatal stabbing attacks at the homes of former health ministry officials, both lay judges and professionals already face a demanding test — to remain impartial and unprejudiced.
Not only have Tokyo Metropolitan Police released a version of events leading up to the stabbing attacks, an alleged witness report and the suspect’s motives for the attacks, but investigators have commented on what the suspect has said during interrogations and during an alleged confession.
We know from recent cases that serious doubts have been cast on the credibility of confessions obtained during interrogations. In Toyama, an alleged rapist was released after spending three years in prison when a court ruled his confession had been coerced. In Kagoshima, 12 defendants were acquitted when their confessions were similarly called into question.
That the police envisage providing courts in the future with a DVD recording of a suspect affirming a statement read out by an investigator — and not the whole interrogation — does not allay fears that confessions might be given under duress.
Whether the suspect in the most recent case pleads guilty is beside the point. Every defendant has the right to the presumption of innocence, a fair and impartial trial, and the presentation of his or her case before the court on an equal basis with that of the prosecution. While the public has every right to know what efforts the police are making to solve a crime and bring the perpetrator(s) to justice, the release of allegedly incriminating evidence ahead of a trial and its dissemination by the media will, I believe, have an inevitable impact on the opinions of potential jurists and pose a grave danger to the impartiality of the new court system.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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