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Sunday, Oct. 5, 2003


Role of victims in court needs careful monitoring

In the past, the press was often accused of bearing down too hard on victims of crimes and their families. In the most extreme cases, the media would camp outside the homes of victims who didn't want to talk to them (the family of the Kobe boy who was beheaded by another boy in 1995) or imply that a victim was not really a victim but perhaps responsible for the crime (the initial suspect in the Matsumoto Sarin Poisoning of 1994).

The press has been understandably conscientious about its coverage of the Ikeda Elementary School killings that took place in Osaka in June 2001. For the most part, they did not seek out the parents of the slain children, but they nevertheless welcomed with comforting arms and moist eyes those parents who wished to vent their anger and grief.

The case, which ended last month with the killer, Mamoru Takuma, sentenced to death, was an extraordinary one, and not just because of its brutality. Takuma has maintained from the beginning that he killed the eight children because he specifically wanted to be condemned to death.

The parents have expressed relief at the sentence, but they are not entirely satisfied because Takuma has shown no remorse. And why should he? He is getting exactly what he wants.

The Takuma trial and the Nagasaki murder of a 4-year-old by a 12-year-old boy have emboldened people who advocate allowing victims greater access to court proceedings. Until three years ago, victims were essentially left out of the legal process unless they were needed as witnesses. Victims' groups have lobbied for their right to confront criminals and describe their suffering in court.

In 2000, a new law was passed that allowed victims to give statements in court cases and observe the reading of verdicts and sentences. Advocates of victims' rights have said that victims' feelings and views should be included in the case and that they should receive explanations of proceedings and decisions from lawyers and judges.

In an interview that appeared in the Asahi Shimbun in August, Hidemichi Morosawa, a professor of law at Tokiwa University, said that Japanese courts should allow victims "to interrogate defendants or witnesses." He claimed that such interrogations will actually speed up the process of "uncovering the truth," which is the purpose of a trial.

Criminal trials are designed as confrontations between persons accused of crimes and the state, not victims. The search for truth that can end with a person losing his freedom or even his life demands an objective attitude and laws that are fair and unbiased. The premise of having victims confront defendants runs counter to the spirit of a fair trial, because the inclusion of an alleged victim in the proceedings could imply predetermined guilt.

A natural consequence of such a system would be judges taking victims' feelings into account when handing down sentences. To people like Morosawa, this idea is only natural, but it makes the process of sentencing arbitrary. In the Osaka case, Takuma told police he chose Ikeda Elementary School because it was "elite" and, thus, his rampage would gain more notoriety and guarantee a death sentence. The implication is that if he killed eight children in an orphanage it wouldn't have made as big an impact.

Morosawa said that he was encouraged by the way the Ikeda case was handled, because "the police and prosecutors kept the victims in mind" as they proceeded. But if the family's feelings are to be considered during sentencing, what about similar crimes where the victims have no families? Would the sentencing be different?

Obviously, it is the parents of the slain 4-year-old Shun Tanemoto in the Nagasaki case who are on the mind of politicians and pundits who want to change the criminal code again so that the 12-year-old boy who confessed to the murder could be punished. Under current law, a minor under the age of 14 cannot be punished, but because of the case's notoriety, the Family Court judge in charge of it allowed the parents and grandfather of the victim to read statements to the court, something that is normally not allowed.

What's more, details of the boy's psychiatric testing were released to the media, setting another precedent. The reason given for these disclosures was that the parents wanted to help prevent such a crime from happening again, though no one has clarified just how such a disclosure would do that. The judge said she "utilized" the parents' comments when she decided to send the boy to a special facility where he will essentially be locked in a room for a year. In even the most extreme cases, minors are usually confined for no more than six months.

The press has been there for the families throughout both cases, but they've mostly been silent about the possible problems inherent in a justice system that involves victims. To discuss these problems might be construed as callousness in light of the families' suffering.

Victims do need help. Criminal suspects are detained at the expense of the state, but a family who loses a breadwinner in a crime receives no support. Victims also channel their grief into important causes. Some of the Ikeda families are using their power as news magnets to draw attention to the sorry state of security at Japanese schools.

However, allowing victims to influence court decisions is a step backward toward a legal system whose purpose is revenge, not justice. Of course, many people believe that revenge is justice, but they usually don't put it so bluntly.

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