After the defense team stuck to its argument that Matsumoto was unfit to stand trial and refused to present the case for an appeal by a designated deadline, the Tokyo High Court on Monday decided to reject the appeal, closing the door to additional hearings.
The lawyers representing Matsumoto, 51, failed to submit a document stating their case by the deadline set for Aug. 31 last year, even though the document reportedly had been completed.
By doing so, they apparently tried to further push their stance that Matsumoto was not mentally fit and therefore court procedures should discontinue.
But their tactics were risky because under the Criminal Procedure Code a high court is required to reject an appeal unless defense counsel presents its case by a given deadline.
Because the lower court ruling for Matsumoto is a death sentence, the Tokyo High Court extended the submission deadline once and conducted a psychiatric test on the cult guru as a concession to the defense team.
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But the lawyers took a risk by failing to present the required document, even though the action raised the possibility of their client losing a chance for court hearings if a planned psychiatric test showed the defendant was fit to stand trial.
On Feb. 20, court-appointed psychiatrist Akira Nishiyama submitted his test results showing Matsumoto’s mental competency to the high court. The test results apparently led presiding Judge Masaru Suda to make Monday’s decision.
The defense team only recently reversed its position and stated its intention to submit the document, saying it now had to let Matsumoto, who they said was mentally incompetent to stand trial, face a public trial in a bid to prevent the truth from being buried.
But the high court followed procedure and dismissed the appeal filed by the defense team.
If the lawyers had submitted the document by the deadline, chances would have been left open for them to continue arguing during public hearings whether Matsumoto was fit to stand trial. But they chose to not submit the document on the grounds that making a mentally incompetent defendant stand trial was against lawyers’ ethics.
As a result, the defense team deprived Matsumoto of his chance for court hearings and only increased the likelihood his death sentence would be finalized faster.
In Monday’s decision, the presiding judge criticized the defense method, saying, “It [the method] is extremely problematic, as lawyers are obliged to defend their clients’ rights to receive a fair trial and fulfill their duties.”
A new lay judge system will be introduced in about three years. But this high-profile case, which will eventually be decided behind closed doors due to the lawyers’ failure to follow basic judicial rules, could create public confusion in a lay judge system that would in principle open trials to public exposure.
Judicial circles–particularly bar associations–are urged to take a close look at the case and think about what exactly caused so many problems.
Court’s next move in the spotlight
By Fumio Tanaka, Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer
Given the Tokyo High Court’s rejection of an appeal filed by Matsumoto’s defense counsel, the main focus of the case now centers on the decision the high court and the Supreme Court make following the defense’s filing of a formal objection.
The high court’s 11th criminal case department, headed by presiding Judge Yu Shiraki, will handle the objection. The critical points of the argument are whether the high court’s refusal of the appeal was legal, and whether Matsumoto is fit to stand trial.
As for the legitimacy of the high court’s decision, an experienced judge said: “When the defense counsel chose not to submit a statement explaining their appeal, they put it in the high court’s hands to decide whether the appeal should be rejected. There’s no room for the high court’s decision to be found illegal.”
If the courts conclude that Matsumoto is not fit to stand trial and that the high court should have suspended the trial rather than refuse the appeal, Matsumoto will escape an immediate decision on the death penalty.
However, a psychiatrist who was asked to examine Matsumoto by the high court declared that he was able to stand trial. With this in mind, it is unlikely the high court’s decision will be overturned.
Many judges have pointed out that the defense counsel, who by not presenting the case for the appeal caused the high court to reject the appeal itself, may be punished.
When a lawyer acts to delay a trial, a court can request a bar association to authorize disciplinary action. Although no such request has been made since 1989, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations’ regulations require it to act promptly if such a request is made. Accordingly, courts have decided to make requests whenever necessary.
Matsumoto’s lawyers have kept their legal brief regarding the case for appeal close to their chests for more than half a year after the deadline to try to win their point.
There is no knowing whether the high court will take the plunge and demand the lawyers be punished, and so speculation over what it will do next remains rife.