In a 5-0 decision, the Supreme Court’s No. 1 Petit Bench on Feb. 13 overturned a high court decision that had reversed a lower court’s acquittal of Mr. Kikuo Anzai on drug-smuggling charges. This case marked the first time that the top court finalized an acquittal handed down in a lay judge trial since the lay judge system began in 2009. In doing so, the Supreme Court upheld the principle that appellate courts should respect as much as possible rulings handed down in lay judge trials.

The top court’s decision underlines a need for public prosecutors to present concrete evidence in lower court trials that leaves no room for uncertainty regarding the guilt of defendants. For their part, lay judges must carefully weigh all evidence and defendants’ oral statements. In lower court trials involving serious criminal offense, six lay judges sit with three professional judges. Only professional judges handle appellate trials at high courts.

Mr. Anzai, age 61, had been charged with allegedly smuggling a 1 kg bag of stimulants hidden in a can of chocolate into Narita airport in November 2009. The Chiba District Court acquitted him on the basis of his statement that a client had entrusted to him the can as a souvenir for a friend and that he did not know what was in it. Prosecutors appealed the decision, however, and upon examination of almost the same evidence the Tokyo High Court found him guilty. The high court pointed out that the man who had entrusted the can to the defendant had been tried in a separate drug-related case and that this man had promised Mr. Anzai a big reward for smuggling the drugs and had paid his travel expenses.

The Supreme Court’s Feb. 13 ruling on the case stressed that if professional appellate trial judges examine the same evidence as the lower court and reverse its ruling, it runs counter to the lay judge system’s aim of reflecting the perspectives of citizen judges in trials. It laid down the principle that if a high court reverses a lay judge ruling, it should prove that the weighing of the evidence and the overall judgment in the initial trial were irrational in terms of “logical consistency and common sense.”

It must be noted that the principle was laid down in a case in which an acquittal was handed down in the initial ruling. In cases in which the initial ruling is one of guilt, high courts must strictly abide by the principle that “no punishment will be meted out when there is uncertainty about guilt” and closely scrutinize all available evidence.

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