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Friday, August 07, 2009

Japan court reaches guilty verdict in first lay judge trial
Benjamin Hackman at 9:09 AM ET

[JURIST] Japan's first jury trial since World War II ended Thursday, with the Tokyo District Court [official website, in Japanese] convicting Katsuyoshi Fujii of murder. A mixed panel of six lay and three professional judges sentenced [Kyodo News report] the 72-year-old Fujii to 15 years in prison for killing his neighbor in May. Fujii's trial began [JURIST report] Monday after the six lay judges were selected [Mainichi Daily News report] from 47 candidates summoned to court. Fujii pleaded guilty, though his lawyer said he may appeal the severity of the sentence. In Japan, murder sentences range from five years in prison to death. Demonstrators had gathered outside the court on Monday to protest the new system that may require them to stand in judgment of fellow citizens, which they believe violates the constitutional principles of freedom of thought and conscience.

Japan has revamped its criminal-trial system, which had been presided over only by professional judges, in order to make the trial process more efficient and transparent. In 2004, Japan's parliament, the National Diet, enacted the Lay Assessor Act [materials, PDF; Ministry of Justice backgrounder], which impanels professional and lay judges to decide and sentence capital cases and cases involving an intentional death. Panels can be made up of three professional judges and six lay judges or one professional judge and four lay judges. For their verdicts to stand, lay judges need the concurrence [BBC report] of at least one professional judge. The lay-judge system was to go into effect May 1, but 20 members of Japan’s parliament formed a group in April to delay [JURIST report] the system’s implementation.

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