Japan's first jury trial since World War II concluded Thursday with a mixed group of citizens and professional judges convicting a man of murder and sentencing him to a tougher-than-expected 15 years in prison.
The ruling was the first under the new Japanese jury system, a major overhaul of the country's legal framework aimed at speeding up trials and offering greater transparency.
The system pairs six citizens with three professional judges, and the nine together decide both guilt and sentencing. All nine are considered judges. Until now, all trials were heard only by professional judges.
During the four-day trial, the citizen judges were allowed to ask the defendant questions, though many later said they were too nervous to do so. The son of the victim also took the stand to appeal to the jury.
Man, 72, found guilty of murder
The trial in Tokyo District Court found 72-year-old Katsuyoshi Fujii guilty of murder in the fatal stabbing of a 66-year-old neighbor after a quarrel in May. Fujii pleaded guilty but his lawyers sought leniency in the sentencing.
Murder carriers a maximum penalty of death in Japan, although it is rare in cases involving a single victim.
Presiding Judge Yasuhiro Akiba said the jury sentenced the defendant to 15 years in prison — one year short of what prosecutors had sought — because the stabbing was not premeditated. But Akiba said the defendant deserved a tough sentence because his attack was persistent and he never called an ambulance.
The citizen judges said it was difficult to decide on the sentence, but they praised the professional judges, prosecutors and defense for making their arguments easy to follow and avoiding the use of legal jargon.
Defense lawyer Shunji Date said he is considering appealing the ruling.
"The defendant thinks the ruling did not take into consideration his testimony at all," he said.
Legal experts said the jail term was longer than the standard of about 10 years, which they attributed to the public's refusal to tolerate neighborhood crime and its sympathy toward crime victims.
"The results reflected the sense of justice among ordinary citizens, for whom a fatal knife attack in a peaceful neighborhood is totally unacceptable," Surugadai Law School Professor Takayuki Aoki told public broadcaster NHK.
New process shortens trials
The new trial process is streamlined to allow the citizen judges to quickly return to their lives. Traditional Japanese trials can take years to reach a conclusion and rely heavily on documents instead of trial testimony.
Japanese juries are expected to hear about 2,000 to 3,000 cases per year, all involving serious crimes such as murder and kidnapping. About 300,000 candidates are being selected randomly from eligible voters nationwide to serve jury duty each year.
Some Japanese are reluctant to serve, in part because they may have to decide on capital punishment in a murder case.
Japan launched a jury trial system in 1928, but dropped it in 1943 amid escalating chaos during World War II. The system was never popular because legal professionals opposed allowing ordinary citizens to decide guilt.