EDITORIAL: Lay judges in Matsudo murder trial struggled to make ultimate judgment

TOKYO (The Japan News/ANN) - Guilty or not guilty? Death penalty or life imprisonment? The latest court ruling seems to show the agony of lay judges who had to make the ultimate judgment.

 The Chiba District Court sentenced a 47-year-old man to life imprisonment at a lay judge trial over the murder of a Vietnamese girl who was in the third grade of elementary school in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, in March last year.

 The girl was abducted on her way to school, and she was ruthlessly murdered. Her body was abandoned, with all her clothes taken off.

 The girl had a dream of serving as a bridge between Vietnam and Japan in the future. She made lots of friends, and she was studying Japanese hard. The case cannot be more aptly described than as a heart-wrenching crime.

 The man, who had been chairing the association of parental guardians at the school the girl was attending, denied all charges against him, saying, “I was not involved in the case.”

 As the main pillar of their evidence to prove the man’s guilt, prosecutors used the result of an expert analysis showing that mixed DNA of the man and the girl had been detected in a substance attached to her remains. A spot of blood belonging to the girl was found inside the man’s car. It was also confirmed that the car had been near the scene where her body was abandoned.

 The man’s defense counsel attacked the evidence with such assertions as “There is a possibility that the investigative authorities may have fabricated analysis results.” However, the ruling rejected all these assertions, saying that the defense counsel was “only referring to an abstract possibility.”

 Since the judges concluded the man was responsible for the murder, there was every reason for their sentencing document to speak harshly of him, saying: “Despite the fact he was in a position to protect children, it was a betrayal of trust. [His conduct] was a despicable and vicious offense.”

Study ways to reduce burdens

 The prosecution had demanded the death penalty. The victim was a little girl, and there was no fault on her part. His act of obscenity was also outrageous. Red-eyed, some lay judges listened attentively to the appeal of her parents, who wanted the man condemned to death.

 Despite there being only a single victim, there is no doubt that the death penalty was highly probable. The lay judges carefully examined the punishment imposed for similar crimes in the past, as well as whether the man’s crime was of a planned nature. They opted for life imprisonment, saying, “There is a need to pay attention to ensuring the impartiality of the trial.”

 The lay judges confronted a brutal crime. They were forced to determine the facts tied to the crime whether the man was guilty or not and to judge whether the death penalty should be imposed on the man. At a press conference after the ruling, one lay judge looked back on the trial, saying, “I was almost carried away by emotion.” How great their mental burden must have been.

 In recent years, there have been an increasing number of cases in which the accused deny allegations against them, resulting in a tendency for trials to be prolonged. The trial of the latest case took about one month, starting with its first hearing and leading up to the delivery of a ruling. There were as many as 11 hearings in the trial.

 To reduce the burden on lay judges, courts of justice should pay more attention to such matters as how to shorten the period of hearings.

 There seems to be no end to crimes targeting children on their way to and from school. In May, a second-year elementary school girl was murdered in Niigata. How should the safety of school-commuting roads be secured? That remains a major problem to be settled.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, July 11, 2018)

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