Japan’s new, unpopular jury system

For decades, all that Japan knew of jury trials came from foreign legal dramas. Now, for the first time since 1943, Japan is watching a real jury decide the fate of a criminal, as six “lay judges” join three professional judges for four days of deliberations over the fatal stabbing of a 66 year-old South ...

582717_090803_juries5.jpg
582717_090803_juries5.jpg

For decades, all that Japan knew of jury trials came from foreign legal dramas. Now, for the first time since 1943, Japan is watching a real jury decide the fate of a criminal, as six "lay judges" join three professional judges for four days of deliberations over the fatal stabbing of a 66 year-old South Korean woman by her 72 year-old neighbor. 

Since the end of trial by jury during World War II, Japan's trials have been carried out under professional judges, which led to accusations of too much secrecy. The 99 percent conviction rate that currently accompanies these trials has increased concern that many innocent people are being convicted, and the reintroduction of juries, which was passed five years ago, is designed to bring the public into the judicial process (though only for serious crimes such as murder). However, the public has been skeptical of the new system, especially the hassle involved in taking time off to serve. Furthermore, many Japanese do not enjoy the open forum of deliberations; a New York Times article from 2007 reported that even a mock trial "had left [participants] stressed and overwhelmed." Overall, polls show that almost 80% of the public does not want to serve, and there have been intermittent protests (shown above) since the law's passage. 

For decades, all that Japan knew of jury trials came from foreign legal dramas. Now, for the first time since 1943, Japan is watching a real jury decide the fate of a criminal, as six “lay judges” join three professional judges for four days of deliberations over the fatal stabbing of a 66 year-old South Korean woman by her 72 year-old neighbor. 

Since the end of trial by jury during World War II, Japan’s trials have been carried out under professional judges, which led to accusations of too much secrecy. The 99 percent conviction rate that currently accompanies these trials has increased concern that many innocent people are being convicted, and the reintroduction of juries, which was passed five years ago, is designed to bring the public into the judicial process (though only for serious crimes such as murder). However, the public has been skeptical of the new system, especially the hassle involved in taking time off to serve. Furthermore, many Japanese do not enjoy the open forum of deliberations; a New York Times article from 2007 reported that even a mock trial “had left [participants] stressed and overwhelmed.” Overall, polls show that almost 80% of the public does not want to serve, and there have been intermittent protests (shown above) since the law’s passage. 

But while the hassle of serving and the confusion at a new system are at the top of the public’s complains, the legal community is more concerned about something else: sentencing. Many critics in Japan have expressed unease at the power given to jurors to pass sentence on criminals, including the death penalty (though at least one professional judge must agree with the lay judges’ recommended sentence). Since the accused has already pled guilty in this case, the jury will likely be focusing on the appropriate penalty — as will the nation.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

James Downie is an editorial researcher at FP.

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