Friday, March 20, 2009

"Death sentence rulings pose problem for lay judges

"It won't be easy for citizen judges called to recommend punishment in serious criminal cases under the new trial system starting in May.

"Given varied court verdicts in recent murder cases, there is no clearly defined standard on when to impose the death sentence.

"In the past, the number of victims in a murder case had been a crucial factor in determining whether an offender deserved the death sentence.

"Veteran judges point to an unwritten rule after a 1983 Supreme Court decision that if a murder case involves just a single victim, the defendant is given a life prison term, while a death sentence is imposed when there are three or more victims. Verdicts may go either way in the case of two victims.

"This week, the Takamatsu District Court on Monday and the Himeji branch of the Kobe District Court on Tuesday handed down death sentences in cases where there was more than one victim.

"But on Wednesday, the Nagoya District Court, ruling in the murder of a woman by three men who had met online, handed down death sentences to two of the defendants despite the fact there was just one victim.

"A former judge said of the verdict: "I wasn't that surprised by the death sentence. It was a horrific crime and there were no extenuating circumstances for the motive."

"The sentiment reflects a trend over the past decade toward verdicts designed to meet the savagery of the crime.

"But among people already chosen as candidates to serve as lay judges, there was confusion at Wednesday's ruling.

"A 68-year-old self-employed man said he had expected only one defendant to get the death sentence. His impression was based on media reports that focused on the cruelty with which the defendant had struck the victim in the head with a hammer a number of times.

"To complicate the issue further, on Jan. 13 the Gifu District Court handed down a life sentence to a defendant who murdered five family members before trying to kill himself.

"Attention will turn next week to how the Akita branch of the Sendai High Court will treat an appeal by prosecutors against a life sentence given to a woman convicted in the district court of killing two children.

"For many years, judges have relied on the 1983 Supreme Court ruling when deciding whether to hand down a death sentence.

"However, the ruling only includes factors for consideration and is far from an exhaustive guide. Ultimately, judges must decide, based on the facts before them, on whether to reach the conclusion that a death sentence is unavoidable.

"In 1999, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling that said a death sentence could be given even in a case with one victim.

"Legal experts said the ruling was intended to put a stop to the almost automatic practice among lower courts of avoiding giving the death sentence in single victim cases, regardless of the brutality of the crime.

"The same court went further in a 2006 verdict for a case in which an offender murdered a mother and her young child. The court overturned lower court verdicts of life sentences and said a death sentence could be handed down depending on the cruelty of the crime and the feelings of bereaved family members."

By Asahi Shimbun (3/20/2009), Link to article (last visited 3/20/2009)

1 comment:

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