The Naha District Court on March 14 acquitted a stock investment firm president of fraud charges. The ruling was the first one on a case in which a person was indicted on the basis of a vote by a prosecution inquest committee — an independent judicial panel made up of 11 citizens. It should serve as catalyst for public discussions on how to improve the prosecution inquest system.

Citizens panels have been established across the nation. Under a system introduced in May 2009, if a citizens’ panel votes twice to indict someone — a vote taking place each time public prosecutors decide not to indict that person — the panel’s decision overrides the public prosecutors’ decision.

The Okinawa prefectural police arrested Mr. Toshihiro Shirakami in March 2010 on suspicion of cheating three people out of ¥48 million by soliciting investment in unlisted stocks. The Naha Prosecution Inquest Committee’s vote in July that year overrode the Naha District Public Prosecutors Office’s decision to not indict him.

In the trial, court appointed-lawyers serving as prosecutors charged that Mr. Shirakami deceived the three people by telling them there was a strong probability that the stocks would be listed, with the stock prices increasing three to fivefold. The court ruled that the statute of limitations had expired for ¥12 million of the ¥48 million.

As for the remaining ¥36 million paid by two of the three persons, it ruled that there was a rational reason for experienced stock investors to believe that the stocks would be listed, adding that the defendant had no intention of defrauding them. The lawyers plan to appeal the ruling to a higher court.

Judicial experts expected the defendant would eventually be acquitted. The trial was with merit though; it delved into details and enabled the court to present a clear explanation as to why Mr. Shirakami should be acquitted. As a person who is indicted bears a heavy burden, members of a citizens’ judicial panel must make fair and reasonable judgments. To this end, they must be provided with appropriate advice and sufficient information. At present, only one lawyer assists them. This may be inadequate.

Transparency may need to be introduced to discussions held by the panel. Currently its discussions are conducted behind closed doors. Persons whose possible indictment is under consideration should be given a chance to present their cases before the panel.

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