Things were going well for the first few months. But then came seven years of hell for 12 court-appointed lawyers defending one of the most notorious suspects in Japan’s postwar history.
It is extremely rare for so many lawyers to be chosen to defend a single person. But this was no ordinary trial.
The lawyers understood the unpopular task ahead of them. They had to side with a suspect charged with the murders of 27 people, a man whose cult had terrorized the country with nerve gas, abductions and plots to take over Japan.
The public had already reached a verdict: They called for early implementation of the death penalty.
Recalling those days, one of the lawyers, who asked not to be identified, said: “Any accused person is guaranteed the right (to a defense lawyer). I have a sense of duty that someone must take on the job.”
The first months showed promise for the new defense team. The lawyers and Matsumoto frequently discussed the case.
At one time, the defendant even sent his lawyers a telegram, asking for an emergency meeting.
Soon, a defense strategy was devised: Matsumoto’s disciples committed a series of crimes on their own without the guru’s permission. Matsumoto agreed with that plan.
Court hearings were held four times each month. But they proved much tougher than the defense had anticipated.
Potential witnesses for the defense refused to testify for Matsumoto. The lawyers continued to make the rounds, seeking anyone willing to speak in court. They were largely greeted with refusals.
Plans to focus on the mental state of Matsumoto were also dashed. Most of those in charge of psychiatric tests for Matsumoto said the defendant could differentiate right from wrong.
And then the biggest problem arose. In the fall of 1996, Matsumoto refused to talk. During the following seven years, he has often failed to show up at interview rooms in the Tokyo Detention House.
So with no witnesses, no advantageous psychiatric tests and no word from the man standing trial, the 12 lawyers have struggled to mount a defense. As a result, court deliberations have dragged on.
At one time, a prosecutor criticized the defense team, saying, “The lawyers are intentionally prolonging the deliberations.”
A defense lawyer angrily replied: “Do you mean that a trial is unnecessary? Do you think that Matsumoto should be hanged immediately?”
Many of the defense lawyers are showing signs of mental fatigue as the trial that started seven and a half years ago winds down.
“Not one of the 12 lawyers would have the energy to work again as a defense lawyer for Matsumoto (if he appeals to the Tokyo High Court),” said a source close to the defense team.