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The Third Petty Bench of the Supreme Court, in a 5-0 decision Tuesday, upheld lower court rulings that sentenced a Wakayama woman to death for killing four people and poisoning 63 others by lacing a curry stew with arsenic during a community summer festival in July 1998. This was a difficult and unusual case. There was no direct evidence linking defendant Masumi Hayashi to the killings, and even her motive remained unclear.

Expert analysis determined that the arsenic in the stew was the same as the arsenic found in her home. The defense said that the analysis was lax. A witness account said that Hayashi was seen minding the stew pots alone. The defense argued that the person seen could have been Hayashi’s daughter. Besides the curry poisoning case, Hayashi was found guilty of attempting to kill her husband and acquaintances using arsenic, with the aim of claiming life insurance money.

The top court decided that circumstantial evidence, including a high concentration of arsenic found in Hayashi’s hair, proves, “to a degree that excludes any rational doubt,” that she was the only person who had an opportunity to put arsenic in the pots of curry. As to her motive, the prosecution said that Hayashi was infuriated over her neighbors’ attitude toward her, which made her feel alienated from society. Both the district and high courts said that her motive was unclear. But the top court said that the failure to pinpoint the motive does not affect the judgment that she was the culprit. One wonders whether more could have been done to determine the motive.

This case highlights a difficulty that may affect the new lay judge system, which starts later this year. How will lay judges deal with a case in which there is no direct evidence, the motive is unknown and the defendant vehemently insists on his or her innocence?

It has been assumed that most cases handled by lay judges will last only three to five days. But complicated trials could last longer. The prosecution and the defense counsel must uphold the principle of building their respective cases on the strength of concrete evidence. Since the lay judge system uses a limited scope of evidence in an effort to shorten the trial, extra care must also be taken to ensure the defense counsel has time to adequately prepare its case.

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