Monday, May 23, 2011

"Appellate courts' role heavier with lay judge trials

"Two years have passed since the start of the lay judge system in which ordinary citizens take part in criminal proceedings as judges to help decide a trial outcome.

"Supreme Court Chief Justice Hirochika Takezaki has said, "Thanks to the excellent qualities of lay judges, the system has run fairly smoothly."

"Just as Takezaki commented, lay judges' efforts to steadily fulfill their weighty responsibility have greatly helped the system take root in society.

"So far, more than 16,000 people have served as lay judges or reserve lay judges, handing down rulings to a total of 2,144 defendants as of May 14.

"Over the past year, citizen judges have had to make tough decisions in an increasing number of cases, such as when a defendant denied committing the crime and when prosecutors sought the death penalty. The death sentence was handed down in five cases involving lay judges in the past year.

"Not all rulings upheld

"In a case involving lay judges at the Kagoshima District Court in December, prosecutors had demanded the death penalty for a defendant accused of a robbery that resulted in death, but the court acquitted him. The panel of lay judges and professional judges criticized the prosecution, saying there were "questions about whether the investigation was carried out properly."

"The district court ruling closely observed the principle of the benefit of the doubt, which says a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. The prosecution has appealed and the trial of second instance, or appellate trial, will be carried out with professional judges alone.

"A Tokyo High Court ruling issued in March raised questions about to what extent an appeal court should value a district court decision made by a panel including lay judges.

"In this case, the Chiba District Court found innocent a defendant who had been indicted for allegedly smuggling stimulant drugs in a can of chocolates. The court said his claim that he was unaware drugs were in the can "could not necessarily be deemed false."

"The Tokyo High Court, however, reversed the district court's ruling and found the defendant guilty. The high court was swayed by the fact that the defendant's statements in court were often inconsistent, and concluded that the accused "fabricated stories every time his excuses failed to pass muster." The high court's decision also said the lower court's evaluation of the evidence was wrong.

"The high court ruling has been criticized by some as playing down the meaning of the lay judge system.

"Value of 3-tier court system

"The lay judge system is aimed at reflecting ordinary citizens' common sense in court rulings. High courts, as a matter of principle, should pay full attention to conclusions reached in trials in which lay judges have taken part.

"However, a high court is quite entitled to review the conclusion reached by a court of first instance if it has doubts about that court's findings. This is the point of having a three-tiered judiciary system of district, high and supreme courts.

"In a Yomiuri Shimbun survey on the roles of appellate courts, 80 percent of people with experience serving as lay judges were in favor of high courts "issuing judgments on their own, if necessary."

"A high court also has the option of sending a case back to a district court to have it deliberated anew by a fresh lineup of lay judges.

"What is important is that a higher court, if it objects to a lower court ruling, clearly demonstrate why it cannot support the decision. Appellate court proceedings are becoming increasingly important."

By Yomiuri Shimbun (Editorial, 5/21/2011), Link to article (last visited 5/23/2011)

1 comment: said...

Thanks for your kind legal insights. Why is there no more update on your law blog?