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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Legal pros expecting a lot from lay judges


Staff writer

Videotaping interrogations of criminal suspects could have prevented a man recently effectively exonerated by a DNA test from being convicted of murder, but the result of his trial might not have been any different if lay judges had been on the bench, legal professionals said Tuesday.

Toshikazu Sugaya spent 17 years in prison after being convicted of kidnapping and murdering a 4-year-old girl in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, in 1990 but was freed this month after recent tests indicated his DNA did not match traces found on the victim's clothing. Initial tests had led to his getting a life sentence.

But having lay judges, or "saibanin," participate in the criminal trial to weigh the evidence and reach a verdict should lead to fewer miscarriages of justice, because the fresh eyes of the public will be involved in the trial process and they will try to do the right thing, the lawyers said.

"I can't say firmly that lay judges could have prevented Sugaya's conviction, because forensic evidence and a confession were submitted, and there is no proof the lay judges would not have been swayed into believing them," Makoto Miyazaki, president of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, said at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo.

Taping the entire interrogation process would have been the primary means of preventing his conviction, he said.

Miyazaki also criticized the Utsunomiya High Court and the Supreme Court for not wanting to reopen the case immediately despite new DNA results submitted by Sugaya's defense team.

Satoru Shinomiya, a lawyer and professor at Kokugakuin University law school, said the courts failed to listen to Sugaya's attorneys, who argued that the accuracy of the early DNA tests were problematic because the sample was collected long after the crime and was not properly stored.

"If the lay judges had been there, at least they would have listened to the argument carefully," Shinomiya said.

Speaking to foreign reporters regarding the May 21 debut of the lay judge system, former Supreme Court Justice Kunio Hamada said public participation will have a positive impact on how professional judges operate.

"Career criminal trial judges are so accustomed to their methods and precedents, but now they have to deal with lay judges. They will have to go back to principles like the presumption of innocence," said Hamada, who served on the top court for five years from 2001. "So from this point on, the conduct of criminal trial judges will improve."

Under the saibanin system, six randomly chosen voters will sit on the bench with three professional judges to try serious crimes, including weighing the evidence, reaching a verdict and deciding a sentence.

Lay judges are bound by confidentiality and banned from disclosing details of their deliberations, but Miyazaki said there needs to be a system to allow them to speak so they can check whether their actions were fair and impartial.

Asked about the risk of prospective lay judges being influenced by media reports that often portray suspects as already guilty, Miyazaki said he believes professional judges are already prejudiced in this regard.

The Tokyo District Court is expected to hold its first trial involving lay judges in early August.


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