Two men, one of them a former gangster, were found to have intimidated lay judges in the trial of a senior member of a Fukuoka Prefecture-based crime syndicate. The incident has disrupted the judicial process, with the resignation of the lay judges from the trial and cancelation of the scheduled ruling. The authorities should do their utmost to ensure the safety of lay judges, as it is a cornerstone of the system begun seven years ago.

In the trial, Kosuke Hata of the Kudo-kai underworld organization is charged with attempted murder. Just after his first hearing was held in May at the Kokura branch of the Fukuoka District Court in Kitakyushu, the two men allegedly approached two of the six lay judges involved in the trial on a street near the court and said to them such things as, “The sentence has already been decided in a way, right?” “We remember your faces” and “Thank you in advance.”

After confirming the event took place, the court branch canceled the session to hand down the ruling, which had been scheduled for mid-May. In early June, the court dismissed four of the six lay judges who had asked to be excused. In mid-July, it decided to have the case tried by professional judges alone, based on a request from the prosecution. Both the prosecution and the court determined that continuing the lay judge trial would have exposed the lay judges to the risk of harm by members of the crime syndicate.

After the Kitakyushu incident, the Supreme Court instructed courts across the country to use public vehicles to transport lay judges if deemed necessary.

The court branch filed an accusation against the two men for violation of the lay judges law, which prohibits intimidating or making requests to lay judges, and the prosecutors indicted them earlier this month.

This is the first time since the lay judge system was introduced in 2009 that a lay judge trial was canceled halfway through proceedings. Such heinous crimes as murder, assault resulting in death, arson and rape are in principle tried by six citizens who serve as lay judges alongside three professional judges. Appellate trials are handled solely by professional judges.

The lay judges law bans disclosing the names and addresses of lay judges and prohibits anybody from contacting them. Despite this legal protection, the faces of lay judges are exposed during trial hearings. Tight security is provided to prevent anyone from approaching the lay judges inside the court, but not once they leave the court premises.

The Kudo-kai is known for its anti-social and violent nature. Because its members have repeatedly assaulted citizens who organized anti-yakuza efforts or refused to pay protection money to the gang, the Kudo-kai has been designated as a dangerous underworld organization under the anti-gangster law — which enables the police to immediately arrest its members if they are found to have made unreasonable demands to people and businesses, such as payment of protection money.

Because of the Kudo-kai’s violent history, the Fukuoka District Court and its Kokura branch have chosen in the past not to hold lay judge trials for six cases involving the gang’s members — acting on requests from the prosecution before the trials began.

In the latest case, however, the prosecutors did not make such a request and the court did not bother to address the issue either, on the grounds that the gang, as an organization, was not involved in the alleged crime.

The safety of lay judges must be ensured. At the same time, one decision after another to exclude relevant cases from lay judge trials could undermine the system, which is aimed at bringing citizens’ common sense and perspectives to criminal trials and helping increase citizens’ understanding of the judiciary system.

The police, prosecutors and the court should examine whether they had sufficient prior communication before deciding to subject the Hata case to a lay judge trial and whether the decision was appropriate in an effort to learn from the lessons of the case.

Randomly selected lay judges must shoulder a heavy burden when hearing cases that involve grave crimes like murder. Their duty involves examining possibly gruesome images from crime scenes and questioning relatives of crime victims. There are cases in which they hand down death sentences. In addition, lay judge trials these days tend to take longer to conclude, which increases the burden on the part of the participants.

When the system was launched in 2009, 53.1 percent of people selected as candidates to serve as lay judges turned down the requests in the initial stage of selection, and only 40.3 percent of those chosen as candidates actually showed up in the final stage of the process. Since then, the situation has grown worse. The corresponding figures for the first seven months of 2015 were 64.8 percent and 25.4 percent, respectively. Incidents such as the intimidation in Kitakyushu could deter more citizens from serving.

The foundation of the lay judge system could be at risk unless the authorities take steps to ensure the security of lay judges so citizens will be able to fulfill their civic duties without having to worry about their safety.

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