Tue, Aug 04, 2009 - Page 5 News List

Japan begins first jury trial in reform of the legal system


Japan began its first jury trial yesterday following legal reforms that aim to bring the judicial process closer to the people amid concerns about allowing jurors to hand down the death penalty.

In the first trial to employ six “lay judges,” a 72-year-old man is accused of stabbing to death a 66-year-old female South Korean neighbor.

The jurors, who were randomly selected from the pool of eligible voters, will be asked to decide not only the verdict but, if the man is convicted, also the sentence in the scheduled four-day case at the Tokyo District Court.

However, as a safeguard, at least one of three professional judges presiding over the trial must agree with the citizen-judges’ majority decisions.

A law passed in May paved the way for the reform, which seeks to give the public a greater role in a judicial process that has often been criticized as remote, complicated and out of touch with the public’s sense of justice.

The change, however, has sparked fierce criticism from some legal experts who argue that randomly selected citizens are not fit to make informed judgments in serious crime cases or decisions about a convict’s life and death.

Japan imposes the death penalty, but usually only for multiple murders. Last week three convicts were executed in Japanese prisons.

Critics also charge that prosecutors will be tempted to use graphic crime scene images as evidence to sway impressionable jurors.

Recent polls have shown that many members of the public are reluctant to be called up as jurors, which has now become a civic duty enforced with fines of up to ¥100,000 (US$1,000) for failure to show up.

Lay judges are also committed to a lifetime of secrecy on their closed-door deliberations, a vow of silence enforced by penalties of up to six months in prison or a ¥500,000 fine for violators.

Before the start of the murder trial, defense lawyer Shunji Date pledged to avoid legalistic jargon and “use language as simple as possible.”

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