(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 15, 2012)
(Apr. 16, 2012)
Lay judges give death penalty based on circumstantial evidence
The Yomiuri Shimbun
"It can be clearly stated that the perpetrator can be no one other than the defendant," the Saitama District Court said in the conclusion of a ruling it handed down on Friday.
In a lay judge trial, Kanae Kijima was convicted of murder and other crimes for killing three men through carbon monoxide poisoning using charcoal briquettes and stoves, disguising their deaths as suicides. The district court sentenced the 37-year-old woman to death as demanded by the prosecution.
The verdict fully reflected the prosecution's arguments.
Regarding the motive for the murders, the ruling found the defendant "received huge amounts of money from the victims to maintain an extravagant lifestyle and killed all three so she would not have to pay back the money they had given her."
There was no direct evidence linking Kijima to the crimes, such as eyewitness testimony or a confession, and the defendant pleaded not guilty in the high-profile trial.
The prosecution aimed to substantiate the accusations through many layers of circumstantial evidence. The Kijima trial can be called a prime example of a complex criminal case.
Initial probes deficient
In court, the prosecution emphasized that all three suspicious deaths had a large number of things in common. Among them were such facts as that all three men had dated Kijima until just before they died and there were charcoal briquettes and stoves at each of the death scenes.
The prosecution also argued that the defendant's purchases of charcoal and stoves prior to the deaths of the men should be considered convincing evidence that the defendant committed a string of murders.
Although the defendant insisted she purchased the charcoal "for cooking purposes," the court rejected that as an "irrational excuse."
The case, which drew much public attention, brought to the fore a number of deficiencies in the process of police investigations.
The police deemed one of the deaths a suicide and failed to perform an autopsy. Investigators also mistakenly judged another of the deaths to have been due to a fire caused by the man mishandling a burning cigarette.
There can be no room for doubt that these mistakes during the initial investigations of the cases affected adversely the task of substantiating the charges in the trial.
In addition, we have an uneasy feeling about an analogy the prosecution used in its closing arguments regarding the evaluation of the circumstantial evidence.
The prosecution said: "Suppose that you go to bed at night when a starry sky is seen, and find after daybreak the neighborhood is blanketed in snow. Can't that be taken as proof that snow fell during the course of the night?"
Even admitting that the prosecution used the analogy in an effort to offer an intelligible explanation to the lay judges, it could still be interpreted as an effort to prod the lay judges into making a judgment by playing on their imaginations.
Dedication of lay judges
In light of the cardinal rule in criminal trials that judgments must be made solely on the basis of the evidence, the use of that analogy cannot be considered appropriate.
The lay judges in the trial are believed to have been under enormous pressure, both mentally and physically.
The lay judges served for 100 days, attending a total of 36 public hearings in the case. At the close of the trial, one male lay judge said at a press conference, "We've made it by working together to bring the trial to an end, and I now feel a sense of accomplishment."
They may have been under heavy strain in making the choice to impose capital punishment on the defendant.
Prosecutors have demanded the death penalty in 18 lay judge trials so far, including this one. Death sentences have been handed down in 14 of those cases.
The lay judge system can continue to exist because lay judges have assumed weighty responsibilities for the cause of justice.
The serial murder trial has brought home to us anew the significance of the dedicated efforts of lay judges.