Aum trial points to system flaws

The Daily Yomiuri (Japan), Apr. 26, 2003
Yoichiro Osawa and Akihiro Ishihara, Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writers

The trial of Aum Supreme Truth cult founder Chizuo Matsumoto, 48, also known as Shoko Asahara, at the Tokyo District Court, which has taken seven years so far, showcases the difficulty of speeding up court procedures.

Government reforms planned for the judicial systems call for all first-stage trials to be finished within two years and for the introduction of a mixed jury system, in which members of the public will participate in criminal trials with judges.

After the reforms are implemented, a lengthy trial such as Matsumoto’s would not be tolerated. In addition to its length, Matsumoto’s trial highlighted other tasks reforms need to tackle.

Matsumoto’s trial took 254 hearings from the beginning to the prosecutor’s demand for the death penalty Thursday, and is seen a prime example of over-lengthy trials, along with that of Hiromasa Ezoe, who was found guilty in the Recruit bribery scandal after 322 hearings held over more than 13 years.

One difference between the two cases is that even under a reformed system, the Recruit case would not have had a mixed jury, while Matsumoto’s probably would have, because the series of crimes committed by Aum resulted in many deaths.

The government’s draft plan of a mixed jury system listed three following types of cases to be tried under the system:

— Cases that the law requires to be tried by three judges in consultation, except civil strife cases. The stipulation applies to cases in which the minimum punishment under the law is one year in prison.

— Cases that can carry sentences of death or indefinite prison terms.

— Cases in which the defendant is charged with intentionally causing death.

The Recruit case did not fall into any one of these categories, but all 13 charges on which Matsumoto is being tried fall into all three.

Under the mixed jury system, the court would not have the power to sequester members of the public for jury duty for a long period of time, so it is thought that the maximum period a trial could take would be a month or so.

Matsumoto’s is a rare case, and it is virtually impossible under current trial methods to finish such a large-scale trial, in which more than 10 causes of action are being handled, within a short period.

So how would a case like Matsumoto’s be handled under a mixed jury system?

Legal experts point out that causes of action–crimes to be prosecuted–should be limited or taken up in separate trials.

Initially, the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office indicted Matsumoto on 17 charges. The indictments covered 27 murder victims and about 3,900 people who were injured.

But the prosecutors later changed the causes of action, limiting the number of injured covered by the indictments to 18 to speed up court proceedings. Prosecutors also withdrew indictments on four cases related to illegal production of stimulants and other drugs.

These actions are rare for prosecutors, but a senior Tokyo District Court official said, “Court officials said there were too many indictments from the beginning.”

Matsumoto’s lawyers also criticized prosecutors, saying that a speedy trial would be impossible with 17 indictments.

But a senior Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office official said: “During the investigation, the possibility that Matsumoto had engaged in many other crimes emerged. Choosing just 17 was difficult.”

Looking at a precedent in the United States, which has a jury system, prosecutors in the 1995 bombing of a federal government building in Oklahoma indicted the defendant only for the murders of eight federal government employees, although 168 people were killed. The murder of federal employees carries harsher penalties than the murder of members of the public.

In Japan, however, “Taking the feelings of victims and their families into consideration, it’s hard to limit the number of indictments in cases where people were killed,” a Japan Federation of Bar Associations official said.

Another problem arises over how to decide punishment if separate trials are held for a single defendant.

One judge with many years on the bench said: “Drastic changes must be made in the system. For example, each separate trial should first judge whether the defendant is guilty, and then sentences should be handed down for all guilty verdicts at the last stage.”

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said, “It must be a complicated case, but seven years is too long,” after hearing of the death penalty demand for Matsumoto on Thursday evening.

“Trials must be more speedy, which is why I’m tackling judicial reforms,” he told reporters at the Prime Minister’s Office.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday April 26, 2003.
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