This news story slipped under my large nose in the last few days of earth-shaking quake related news. On March 30th (2011) the Tokyo High Court overturned the not-guilty verdict of a 60 year-old office worker accused of smuggling in meth-amphetamines and other crimes. He was the first person to be found completely innocent under the new lay-jury system to have his not-guilty conviction overturned. He was found innocent in June of 2010. This time the prosecutor friendly court, which was not burdened with a jury, sentenced him to ten years of hard labor and a fine of six million yen.
In Japan, the lay-jury system, which pairs civilians with a judge or judges, was supposed to put a check on prosecutorial abuse and judicial arrogance by involving ordinary citizens in the process so that a more reasonable and fair verdict could be given. (Japan has a 99% conviction rate for criminal cases*). Unfortunately, in Japan de facto double jeopardy exists and on the flimsiest of claims the prosecution can appeal a verdict, so in reality, you can be tried for the same crime twice, even three or four times. Considering the unlikely odds of ever being found innocent, this makes actually walking away free after being prosecuted about as probable as TEPCO getting the Fukushima Nuclear Reactor working again. While the first trial in major cases may be held in front of a lay-jury, the appeal is your standard one judge court or panel of judges court.
The Tokyo High Court ruled that the defendant’s claim to not knowing he was carrying drugs was not credible. However, one has to wonder how credible the prosecution is in Japan after one of their ace prosecutors was recently arrested and charged for forging evidence. Justice in Japan is a long way off. I suppose that in time of instability like these days, we should be happy that the Japanese criminal justice system still functions on the basic principle we’ve all come to know and love in Japan: presumed guilty until proven guilty.
*It should be noted that the conviction rate in Japan is only 99% because prosecutors will only take slam dunk cases. According to researchers like David Johnson, author of The Japanese Way of Justicemany cases brought to the prosecutors are never pursued or “suspended” in perpetuity. Our legal philosopher and ace reporter, Stephanie Nakajima, will be doing a follow-up on this story in the near future.
UPDATED: The Supreme Court overturned the conviction and upheld the original not guilty-verdict in February of 2012 stating, “If a second trial is held on the basis that the facts were mistaken in the first trial, you have to take into account logical and experiential rules and prove concretely that there were irrational mistakes.” The Supreme Court upheld the original verdict of the lay jury and for the first time put a check on the prosecutor’s wanton use of appeals on every rare not-guilty verdict they encountered.