Top court urges high court to respect citizens' viewpoints, scraps acquittal overturn
A lawyer shows off a banner saying, "Acquitted," on Feb. 13, 2012, after the Supreme Court acquitted his client of smuggling stimulants. (Mainichi)
The Supreme Court underscored the importance of respecting ordinary citizens' viewpoints when it scrapped a high court decision that overturned lay judges' acquittal of a man charged with smuggling stimulants.
More specifically, the top court warned appeal courts against being excessively involved in factual inquiries and reviewing lay judges' understanding of facts at their own discretion. The latest ruling is expected to affect prosecutors' and lower courts' work procedures.
In his supplementary opinion, Supreme Court Justice Yu Shiraki criticized the way that high courts have dealt with appeals against lower courts' rulings.
"In past appeal trials of criminal cases, high courts tended to assess facts and consider the degrees of punishments based on their own impressions, and then change lower courts' rulings based on their comparisons," Shiraki said.
He then urged high courts to respect lower courts' rulings.
There has been debate among legal experts on how high courts should try appeals against lower court rulings on criminal cases since before the lay-judge system was introduced in 2009.
In principle, high courts are supposed to concentrate on examining whether lower court rulings are based on mistaken understanding of facts under Japan's criminal judicial system, and to not question new witnesses.
Nevertheless, high courts have tended to examine facts like in district court trials and overturn lower courts' rulings based on their own impressions. Many judges cited high court judges' pride and sense of responsibility to get to the bottom of incidents they try as the reasons for such tendencies.
However, such tendencies among high court judges have come under scrutiny since the introduction of the lay-judge system, in which people selected from among the general public participate in the trial of serious offenses.
In discussions on judicial system reform with the introduction of the lay-judge system as its core, it was proposed that the conditions for high courts making judgments at their own discretion should be limited and that members of the public should also participate in appeal trials.
Even though these proposals were not incorporated in the new judicial system, an advisory panel to the government on judicial system reform underscored the need for appeal courts to respect lay-judge rulings.
In a report in 2009, the Supreme Court's Legal Training and Research Institute stated, "High courts should respect rulings that reflect ordinary citizens' viewpoints, senses and social norms unless they overlook objective facts or are unreasonable in other ways."
The latest top court ruling clearly showed a direction for high court trials of appeal against lower courts' rulings on criminal cases, including those that do not involve citizen judges.
Still, it is apparently possible that the Supreme Court will uphold high courts' conviction of defendants who have been acquitted by lower courts if they can prove that the lower court acquittal is unreasonable in light of logic or common sense. (By Junichi Ishikawa, Shigeyuki Shinohara and Issei Suzuki, Tokyo City News Department)
Click here for the original Japanese story
(Mainichi Japan) February 14, 2012
Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012
Lay judges' acquittal reinstated
The Supreme Court on Monday overturned a high court reversal and upheld a lay judge acquittal of a man tried for drug-smuggling.
Monday's ruling marked the first acquittal handed down in a lay judge trial to be finalized by the Supreme Court since the lay judge system debuted in 2009. The case was also landmark in that it was the first acquittal to have been overturned by a high court.
Kikuo Anzai, 61, was indicted for allegedly smuggling nearly 1 kg of stimulants in a bag into Narita airport from Malaysia in November 2009.
He was acquitted in a Chiba District Court lay judge trial in June 2010 as the panel of six lay and three professional judges accepted his claim that a client gave him what he believed to be canned chocolate as a souvenir for his friend and was unaware it contained drugs.
Prosecutors then appealed and the Tokyo High Court sided with them last March and handed Anzai a 10-year prison term and ¥6 million fine.
In its first judgment on how an appeals court should operate, the top court said the high court must provide concrete proof that the initial ruling was irrational in terms of "logical consistency and common sense" to reverse a district court ruling on grounds of factual error.
The Supreme Court's 1st Petty Bench, in siding with the lay judge trial acquittal, said the Tokyo High Court failed to satisfy this requirement.
Anzai's counsel argued at the top court that while the perspectives of citizen judges were reflected in the initial ruling, the high court ignored all of the elements that should have worked favorably for the defendant.
The prosecutors said the high court's decision was appropriate as it focused on the "irrationality" of the lay judge trial ruling.
Presiding Justice Seishi Kanetsuki said in the top court's ruling that the initial ruling is acceptable from a logical viewpoint as well as from common sense.
Monday's ruling is expected to have a big impact not only on high court trials, but also on prosecutors' decisions on whether to appeal acquittals, legal experts said.
Innocence Overturned: Defendant Sentence to 10 Years
March 30. 2011
"Mixed jury verdict of Not Guilty is scrapped: Tokyo High Court sentences defendant to 10 years."
Mixed Jury System: Not Guilty Verdict
June 23, 2010
"CHIBA -- A panel of citizen judges acquitted a man of smuggling stimulants into Japan, setting a precedent for the first non-guilty verdict in a lay judge trial.
"Kikuo Anzai, 59, a company executive from Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, was acquitted of violating the Stimulants Control Law and the Customs Law at the Chiba District Court on June 22.
"Anzai had been charged with importing stimulants after he was asked by a third person to bring a chocolate can into the country. Prosecutors had demanded Anzai be sentenced to 12 years in prison and fined 6 million yen.
"It marks the nation's first case in which a defendant was acquitted during a lay judge trial. Observers are now focusing their attention on whether prosecutors will appeal the case since none of the past rulings handed down at citizen judge trials has ever been appealed.
"During the trial, whether Anzai had been aware that the chocolate can in his bag contained stimulants became the point of contention. While prosecutors argued that the defendant brought the can into the country after he was commissioned by a person -- who is currently on trial for drug smuggling -- to do so in return for money, his defense counsel claimed that he was unaware of the content of the can as he was entrusted with it as a souvenir for someone else.
"The ruling concluded that the defendant's claim cannot be labeled unreliable, citing the fact that he had complied with a customs request that the can be X-rayed for inspection.
""Based on conventional wisdom, it cannot be recognized that the defendant was unquestionably aware of illegal drugs hidden inside the can," the ruling said.
"Following the decision, the two male citizen judges and three of the four female citizen judges who attended the trial met reporters.
""Although we were presented with the situation that the defendant had faced, there was no solid evidence supporting his guilt," said one of the male citizen judges, a company employee.
"The Chiba District Public Prosecutors Office commented on the ruling following the trial.
""We take the ruling seriously as a result of deliberations among both professional and citizen judges. We believe we did our utmost in making our arguments and presenting the evidence, but we'd like to scrutinize the content of the ruling to see if there were any shortcomings on our part before examining whether to appeal the case," said a representative of the prosecutors office."
First full acquittal in lay judge trial
Defendant's argument accepted that he was set up in drug-smuggling case
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
CHIBA (Kyodo) A businessman became on Tuesday the first defendant to win complete acquittal in a lay judge trial when he was cleared of smuggling stimulant drugs for profit.
A panel of three professional and six citizen judges at the Chiba District Court found Kikuo Anzai, 59, of Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, not guilty of smuggling nearly 1 kg of stimulants in a bag into Narita International Airport from Malaysia last November.
The focal point of the trial was whether Anzai was aware the stimulants were hidden in a can of chocolate in his bag.
Prosecutors alleged he carried the chocolate at the request of another person who offered him ¥300,000 and paid for his round-trip airfare.
Anzai countered that he took the chocolate with him back to Japan as a souvenir from a client to a friend of his.
Presiding Judge Tomoyuki Mizuno said the panel found nothing erroneous in Anzai's testimony, brushing aside the prosecutors' argument that he was aware the package contained contraband.
The prosecutors sought a 12-year prison term and ¥6 million fine.
At a news conference attended by five of the lay judges, they said the prosecution failed to provide enough evidence.
"I believe that the not guilty verdict was right, because guilt was not established," one of the judges, a 50-year-old woman, said.
"They presented circumstantial evidence, but there was nothing that we could declare that he committed (the crime)," said another lay judge. His identity was only revealed as a company employee.
Earlier this month, a panel of professional and citizen judges at the Tokyo District Court's Tachikawa branch partially acquitted a man accused of stealing credit cards from three women and fraudulently using them.
The court suspended his prison sentence for the fraud component of his case, ruling he had not used the cards for shopping.
Lay judge trials started last August. Under the system, six citizens examine criminal cases, including murder, robbery, rape and arson, at district courts along with three professional judges.