Friday, April 4, 2008

The Jury System in Pre-War Japan

"As the clock ticks down to the advent of Japan's new "citizen judge" system next year, it may come as a surprise to learn the nation experimented with a jury system more than half a century ago.

"As part of ongoing judiciary reforms, the new citizen judge system will require ordinary people to join professional judges in debating serious criminal cases and handing down sentences. It will differ considerably from the old jury system.

"Japan's jury system was introduced 80 years ago, in 1928. The system lasted just 15 years until the middle of World War II.

"Resembling judicial proceedings used in United States, the old system involved a panel of 12 citizens who handed their verdict of guilty or not guilty to a judge. The judge would then decide on the sentence.

"The jury system handled 484 cases until it was terminated in 1943 amid the intensifying wartime fighting.

"Jurors were required to be male taxpayers at least 30 years old and able to read and write.

"In contrast, the new citizen judge system will involve six randomly chosen voters of either sex who will join three professional judges in deciding the outcome and sentences in serious criminal cases.

"While there is no modern precedence here for such a system, old newspaper reports of Japan's earliest jury trials may shed light on how things could play out.

"The country's first jury trial was in December 1928 at the Tokyo District Court. A 21-year-old woman was accused of attempted arson in an alleged plot to collect insurance.

"The banner headline of The Asahi Shimbun's Dec. 18 evening issue was: "Imperial capital's first jury trial opens amid tension."

"The story described how the jury was selected. Thirty-six men were summoned, of whom 32, aged 33 to 54, presented themselves at court. That group was whittled down to the final 12 jurors by the defense and prosecutors.

"The next day, an article described the jurors. One was a soba shop worker who became teary-eyed as he watched the accused weep as her father testified that he had cried all night upon hearing of her arrest.

"An article in the Asahi's Dec. 22 evening edition described the gallery's reaction when the judge was asked to repeat a passage from the confession by the accused.

""Two members of the jury stood up and asked, 'We'd like you to read that part again because it was unclear,' causing murmurs in the packed gallery," the article said.

"Key to the trial was whether the defendant's confession had been voluntary. In the end, the jury found her not guilty.

"The biggest difference between the old system and the new citizen judge system is that under the old system, the jurors' private information--such as their name, occupation and home addresses --was made public during the trial. Newspaper articles at the time described one juror as being the first to the court, and another as "asking sharp questions, showing a personality that likely reflected his occupation."

"Under the new system, however, jurors' names and other data will be kept under wraps until the trial is over. Even after the trial ends, personal information will not be disclosed without consent of the citizen judge.

"The old newspaper reports also indicated that jurors serving at the Tokyo District Court were housed in accommodations adjacent to the court in the Kasumigaseki district. They were banned from reading newspaper reports on the trials they were involved in.

"But under the new system, citizen judges will be allowed to return to their homes every day during the trial.

"That means they will likely read and watch media reports on the trials. However, they will be bound to secrecy about what is discussed during the deliberation process, just as previous jurors were.

"Under the old jury law, jurors were fined up to 1,000 yen if they broke this rule--at a time when the starting salary for a bank employee with a university degree was 70 yen a month.

"Starting next year, a citizen judge caught leaking details about judicial discussions will face fines of up to 500,000 yen or six months in prison.

"Lawyer Toshiaki Manabe has examined old media reports on a jury trial held at the Yokohama District Court under the old system.

""The old articles carried the names and occupation of the jurors, which concerns me. As a lawyer, I worry about citizen judges becoming the targets of crimes," Manabe said.

"He also supports greater re-examination of issues that will emerge under the citizen judge system, such as how judges should discuss cases, percentages of cases in which the accused is found not guilty and the obligation for citizen judges to keep silent on the content of such discussions.

"This is important, he said, given the fact that the old jury system ended after such a brief duration.

""It is up to the media reporting on the citizen judge system to create an environment that will allow such re-examinations," Manabe said."

By Kanako Ida (4/4/2008), Asahi Shimbun, Link to article (last visited 4/4/2008)

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