Six lay judges and three professional judges at the Yokohama District Court on Tuesday handed down a death sentence to a 32-year-old man for murdering two men in a Chiba Prefecture hotel in June 2009 — the first death sentence under the lay judge system introduced last year.

This contrasts with a life sentence that the Tokyo District Court gave Nov. 1 to a 42-year-old man who had murdered a female ear-cleaning shop worker and her grandmother in Tokyo’s Minato Ward in August 2009. It was the first case under the lay judge system in which the prosecution had demanded a death sentence. In that case, the judges took into consideration the fact that the defendant had become depressed and had fallen into despair because of unrequited love.

In the Yokohama court case, the brutality of the crime and the defendant’s greed in committing it led to the death sentence. The ruling said that in conspiracy with another man, who had trouble with two men over business and is now on an international wanted list, the defendant volunteered to murder the two in order to obtain concession to smuggle stimulant drugs and sell them in Japan.

While the two victims pleaded for their lives, he stabbed one in the neck and used an electric saw to behead the other. The ruling said the crime was “relentless, atrocious and inhumane” and the second victim’s “dread and physical suffering are beyond imagination.”

Some four-fifths of Japanese support capital punishment. Tuesday’s ruling shows that ordinary citizens can find themselves in a situation in which they, as lay judges, must think deeply about capital punishment in a concrete way.

Despite this, the current system, which prohibits lay judges from speaking about their deliberations in court, deprives lay judges who hand down a death sentence of the chance to share with other citizens what they thought and how they may have agonized over their decision. The system needs to be revised. At present, even the simple matter of whether a death sentence was unanimous or based on a majority opinion cannot be divulged.

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