TOKYO (majirox news) — A landmark decision on the validity of verdicts by a citizen jury will have a far reaching impact on the Japanese criminal justice system. A unanimous decision on Feb. 13 by all five justices of the Japanese Supreme Court upholding the validity of verdicts reached by citizen juries has greatly strengthened their standing, particularly against appeal to non-jury trials, whose power it now strictly limits.
The Supreme Court ruled for the first time that barring an obvious misapplication of the law, the verdict of citizens’ juries must be respected. This places strong limitations on the increasingly common practice of government prosecutors appealing cases to non-jury courts when they are dissatisfied with a verdict.
On Feb. 13, the Supreme Court refused to recognize the verdict of a non-jury court to which the verdict of a citizen’s jury had been appealed. It particularly noted, “Experienced prosecutors have the necessity (when appealing) to bring out specific, concrete points where there has been a misapplication of the law. It could find none in this case.”
The Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the secondary, non-jury court and declared the plaintiff innocent in accordance with the initial verdict of the citizen’s jury.
“The Supreme Court has sent a clear message to the legal establishment,” said one lawyer involved in the controversial case that led to the decision. “It’s the right ruling for a new era in jurisprudence.”
When the system of citizen jury participation began in 2008, a basic premise, in the words of the Japan Legal Research Institute, was that “barring such (exceptional) instances as the jury overlooking objective evidence, whatever verdict citizens juries reach is to be respected.”
However, government prosecutors have tended to treat this as a gray zone or a guideline rather than as a clear-cut rule. The legal establishment, particularly government prosecutors, has not hesitated to appeal jury trials to higher courts with non-jury trials. Of 751 cases, verdicts appealed from jury trials to non-jury trials were overturned 55 times.
The verdict dealt with precisely this type of case. In May of 2009, a citizen’s jury rendered a not guilty verdict in an alleged case of dope smuggling. A Japanese businessman returning from a visit to Malaysia was found with drugs hidden in a one-kilo can of local produce. His defense was that he had been asked to bring it back by a friend and had no idea what was in it.
He was acquitted by a citizen’s jury in Chiba. The prosecution appealed to a higher court, and in a non-jury trial, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a six million yen fine. Subsequently, the plaintiff appealed to the Supreme Court.
“I’m very pleased that a judgment given on the basis of my testimony before a citizen jury was recognized,” the plaintiff stated.