Saturday, 27 November 2010

Japan: Lay judges sentence 'minor' to death

Lay judges choose ultimate penalty for minor
From: The Yomiuri Shimbun
27 November 2010

A panel of three professional and six lay judges at the Sendai District Court on Thursday sentenced to death a minor who killed two women and seriously injured a man earlier this year.

"Considering the brutality of his crime and the gravity of the harm he caused, we have no option but to choose the ultimate penalty," presiding Judge Nobuyuki Suzuki said.

This is the first death sentence handed down to a minor under the lay judge system since it began last year. Many consider the ruling to be in keeping with the recent trend to toughen punishments for juvenile offenders.

It will likely affect future rulings in lay judge trials dealing with similar cases.

Because the defendant, a former demolition worker, pleaded guilty to the charges against him, the focal point of his trial became what punishment was appropriate. In other words, the judges had to decide whether to rule that he could be rehabilitated and thereby avoid capital punishment, or to give weight to the brutality of his crime and impose the death penalty

Ultimately, the ruling condemned the defendant for committing his crimes in a "relentless, ruthless and particularly atrocious" manner.

Furthermore, the court decided that the defendant's statements of apology were "superficial" and "shallow." It said he has an "extremely low possibility of rehabilitation," and the court could find no reason not to hand down the death sentence.

The crimes took place in February in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. The defendant, who was 18 years and seven months old at the time, broke into his former girlfriend's house and tried to abduct her. When her elder sister and a friend tried to stop him, he killed them with a butcher knife.

The defendant also seriously injured a man who was present. At the time, he was on probation for injuring his own mother.


Tougher penalties sought
The Juvenile Law, which has as its basic principles the sound growth and protection of juveniles, was revised in 2000. The changed law made charges of deliberate murder by minors aged 16 or older subject to criminal trials, in principle, because the frequent occurrence of heinous crimes committed by minors has heightened public calls to toughen punishments for juvenile offenders.

The change in the sentence given to a minor who killed a young mother and her baby daughter in Hikari, Yamaguchi Prefecture, in 1999 symbolizes the trend toward harsher penalties for juvenile criminals.

The Hiroshima High Court handed down a ruling of life imprisonment to the defendant, who committed the murders at the age of 18, but the Supreme Court rejected this sentence and sent the case back to the high court.

In its second trial on the murders, the high court sentenced the defendant to death.

In the Miyagi case, the ruling said the defendant's age was not a decisive reason to avoid meting out capital punishment. This reflects the Supreme Court's thinking on the ruling in the mother-daughter murder case.


Lay judge 'almost crushed'
According to a survey compiled by the Supreme Court in 2006, more than 90 percent of professional judges said they would commute a sentence if a defendant was a minor. But half of ordinary citizens polled replied they would neither toughen nor commute a sentence against a juvenile defendant.

Only one-quarter said they would commute a sentence for a juvenile offender.

The results appear to illustrate the public's harsh view on juvenile crimes.

"I was almost crushed under the heavy pressure," said one of the lay judges, who agreed to be questioned at a press conference after the ruling in the Miyagi case. "I want the court to provide mental care for lay judges for as long as necessary."

These are serious problems the court faces every time lay judges have to hand down a heavy sentence.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov. 26, 2010)
(Nov. 27, 2010)

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