If the public thinks the lay judge system is not working, think again. In fact, a study made by the Supreme Court showed that lay judges give out more severe sentences than what public prosecutors ask for. Since the beginning of the system in 2009, around 42 suspects were sentenced harsher punishments than what was demanded by the prosecutors.
In March 2012, 31-year old Miki Kishimoto and her husband Akira were sentenced to 15 years in prison for child abuse, which resulted to the death of the child. Miki and her lawyer, Makiko Kihara were shocked at the result, as the sentence was five years longer than what the prosecutors were aiming for. When asked to explain, the presiding judge said the sentence took into consideration the malicious intent of the couple in abusing the child and the fact that they tried to blame the death of their child to her elder sister, which was not deliberated by the prosecutors. However, Iwao Takayama, lawyer of Akira Kishimoto, who was also sentenced a 15-year prison term, argued that the ruling was unfair. “The punishment (handed to the Kishimotos) lacked fairness as it was clearly different from penalties in trials of similar cases,” he noted. The lawyer pointed that in similar cases tried by professional judges, the sentence would not be the same as the one handed out by the lay judges, claiming that they would follow a precedent should there be one.
But similar or not, coming up with a ruling is not an easy task as indicated by a passionate debate among the lay judges assigned on the case. One former lay judge in the Kishimoto case said, “I was most troubled in deciding on the number of prison years. I did not understand why the defendant was indicted for causing injury resulting in death, a charge lighter than murder, when a child is dead because of abuse from its parents.” While the Kishimotos appealed the sentence, it was denied by the Osaka High Court. The Supreme Court is scheduled to review the ruling by the high court on June 26 to determine what could be set as a measure in lay judges handing out sentences to similar cases in the future.
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