Friday, March 21, 2008

Concerns About The Upcoming Japanese Jury System

"Wednesday's ruling on a 35-year-old woman charged with murdering her daughter and a boy living in her neighborhood in Akita Prefecture shows that the judges were close in their decision between a sentence of death or life in prison. In spring next year the lay judge system will begin, and the onus of making such tough decisions will be on lay judges.

"The Akita District Court sentenced Suzuka Hatakeyama to life in prison, instead of the death penalty demanded by the prosecution, for the two murders in Fujisatomachi in the prefecture. The defense council appealed the decision on the same day to a higher court.

"Hatakeyama had admitted to killing the boy, but denied her intention to kill her daughter, Ayaka, who according to the charges drowned after Hatakeyama pushed her over a bridge railing into a river. The defense maintained that Ayaka's death was caused by negligence resulting in death as Hatakeyama only brushed Ayaka off while Ayaka was sitting on the railing and trying to hold on to her mother.

"Pressure on judges great

"The prosecutors had no physical evidence and had to argue the murder charges using testimonies of people who knew Hatakeyama. The testimonies included accounts that Hatakeyama saw her daughter as bothersome.

"The ruling sided with the prosecution's argument and ruled that Hatakeyama intended to kill her daughter and the boy. However, the ruling added that Hatakeyama committed the crimes on impulse without premeditation and in a mentally unstable state.

"This may be the key factor that made the court hand down a life sentence instead of execution. The ruling appeared to be a close decision, as one of the reasons mentioned for rejecting the death penalty was that a life sentence would allow Hatakeyama to dedicate the rest of her life to making amends for her crimes.

"The lay judge system will have to deal with serious cases like this. Lay judges will have to make decisions based on presented evidence and decide if a defendant had an intention to kill, and if it was premeditated or done on impulse.

"The psychological pressure on lay judges will be immeasurable.

"Faster trials not so easy

"In the Akita case, judges, prosecutors and lawyers met before the first trial to narrow down points of contention. This procedure is meant to shorten the length of trials and is usually completed in several meetings. But in this case, 12 meetings were held, a sign that it was a difficult case.

"Court procedures in the case ended up lasting six months. From September until Wednesday's ruling, 14 court sessions were held, with a maximum of four sessions in one month being held.

"The Supreme Court expects most trials under the lay judge system to wrap up in five sessions or fewer. However, if defendants deny charges against them, some trials will probably not go so smoothly even if judges, prosecutors and lawyers continue to hold pretrial meetings to narrow down points of contention. The Akita trial is an example of this type of case.

"Lay judges working on difficult trials also will be burdened with managing their own lives while making time for the trials.

"In the lay judge system, it may become difficult to make sure cases are thoroughly examined while at the same time ensuring the burden placed on the lay judges is not unreasonable."

By Yomiuri Shimbun (Editorial, 3/21/2008), Link to article (last visited 3/21/2008)

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