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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Lay judge duty sparks new passion

Realtor by day leads charge to improve system

Staff writer

In most ways, Masayoshi Taguchi is just your average neighborhood real estate agent.

News photo
Civic-minded: Masayoshi Taguchi discusses his experience as a lay judge at his office in Nerima Ward, Tokyo. SETSUKO KAMIYA

But in addition to running his business in a shopping district in Nerima Ward, Tokyo, the 36-year-old is an advocate of the lay judge system and is acting on his enthusiasm in the hope of improving it.

Having served as a lay judge at the Tokyo District Court in 2010, Taguchi says he was awakened to the importance of the justice system and was shocked at how average people, including himself, had considered the field as something very distant.

He welcomes the fact that citizens, since May 2009, have become involved in criminal trial proceedings and feels his participation was a priceless experience — yet full of responsibility.

Now as the system enters its third year and is being reviewed, Taguchi is eager to be involved in the discussion, calling on his fellow lay judges and other people to join hands so that ordinary citizens' voices will be reflected in whatever revisions are made.

"I used to think that this was other people's business, but I realized it concerns all of us. Anybody could become defendants or victims. We could be driving a car and hit someone, and one day it could be us sitting in the defendant's seat," he says. "I really want more people to know that this involves everybody."

Since the first defendant under the system was tried in August 2009, more than 3,600 people as of the end of March had received verdicts by panels of six randomly chosen citizens and three professional judges.

Nearly 21,000 people have participated as lay judges and around 7,300 as alternates, according to the Supreme Court. Legal experts say the system has gotten off to a smooth start.

By law, the system faces a mandatory review in its third year, and a panel of legal experts and third-party groups are making assessments, nailing down specific points of debate.

In January, Taguchi and four other lay judge veterans voluntarily compiled a series of recommendations to improve the system and make trials fairer.

Their long list of ideas includes getting prosecutors to disclose a list of all their evidence to defense lawyers, and allowing lay judges access to the pretrial court meetings between the attorneys on both sides where the admissible evidence is narrowed down. This is because some lay judges feel they should see more of the evidence.

The group is also asking the courts not to hesitate to extend the length of deliberations if the lay judges feel they need more time to fully thrash out a case.

Wanting to have the voices of the former lay judges heard, Taguchi visited all 60 district courts and their branches across Japan from January to mid-May and handed his group's recommendations to court officials.

He also held a news conference for local media almost every time he visited a district court and explained the group's recommendations.

"I wanted to let the courts know that we appreciate the significance of the public taking part in the trials, and thank them for their efforts to make it work. But I also wanted to reach other former lay judges and citizens," he says.

"We've relied too much on authorities to decide these things. It's easy to complain about them, but what we actually need to do is to think for ourselves how we want to change it, and discuss it. That's what democracy is about."

He says he never doubted there would be other former lay judges just as eager as he is to get involved. Indeed, after stories about him appeared in local media, some have contacted him.

Taguchi was one of the six lay judges who served on the Manabu Oshio trial in September 2010, where the 34-year-old actor was convicted of giving the synthetic drug MDMA to a woman and for failing to save her life by not calling an ambulance immediately after she overdosed and fell critically ill. Oshio is serving a 30-month prison term.

Not owning a TV, Taguchi was not interested in the entertainment world so he had no knowledge of the defendant. While having some understanding of laws related to his real estate business, Taguchi says the criminal trial system was totally new to him.

Because lay judges are under a gag order not to disclose the details of their deliberations, Taguchi can't discuss what went on behind closed doors in the high-profile trial. But he says everyone participated in the deliberations and thoroughly went through the finer points of the case.

"There was a sense of accomplishment because we all had our opinions heard in full length," he says.

Through the trial, Taguchi also learned the importance of listening carefully to others.

It took some time before he began to reflect on the experience, but it eventually led to a deepening interest in legal issues. He even visited a prison to see how inmates undergo rehabilitation.

"Oshio as well as other defendants are also part of our society. They will one day return (from prison), and how we accept them upon their return is key" to whether they will be able to avoid committing similar offenses, he says.

As part of his efforts, Taguchi has become involved in a nonprofit group that visits juvenile facilities and talks with the young offenders.

"I don't want them to think they are alone," he says.

Among the former lay judge group's recommendations is an idea that the courts should take the jurors to visit correctional facilities, if they wish, prior to the trials, as it is important for them to know the consequences of the sentences they hand down.

Based on the same concern, the group also wants authorities to disclose more information about capital punishment.

Before taking part in the lay judge trial, Taguchi voted in every election but wasn't very involved in community activities. Sitting on the bench as a lay judge sparked his new engagement with society.

"I'm really surprised at the change myself," he laughs.

"I don't think we should feel special to have served as lay judges. But as someone who has participated in this system in an early stage, I feel a sense of responsibility to raise our voices.

"Some people's sense of civic responsibility may have awakened because of the major earthquake. In my case it happened to be the lay judge experience."

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