The Tokyo District Court’s acquittal of former Democratic Party of Japan leader Ichiro Ozawa has raised doubts about the nation's inquest of prosecution system, which essentially allows ordinary citizens to overrule public prosecutors’ decisions to drop cases.
Politically motivated complaints from certain Diet members aside, the question people have about this system is this: Why should people with no formal legal training have such authority?
The system was introduced as part of a series of legal reforms. Prosecutors have traditionally proceeded only with what they believe are slam-dunk cases backed by more than sufficient evidence to convict. Since each trial is seen as a process to confirm the defendant's guilt, greater credibility is attached to statements taken during the investigative process than statements made in court.
A verdict of not guilty is considered a major blunder for prosecutors, who end up being blamed even by the media and academics who are usually critical of the high conviction rate.
The fear of another blunder makes prosecutors shy away from high-profile cases that arouse the public's interest in how the court will decide or highly controversial cases that may set a precedent in the interpretation of the law.
On the other hand, the prosecution's desire to avoid any further embarrassment can result in a misguided determination to win a conviction at all costs.
Obviously, both situations are undesirable. The thinking behind the legal reforms that resulted in the introduction of the inquest of prosecution system was to prevent such situations by accustoming society at large to the idea of deciding the defendant's fate in an open court of law, not in a police interrogation room.
The legal reforms also brought about the "saiban-in" citizen judge system, and laws were revised to prevent investigators from destroying evidence by requiring the audio and video taping of interrogations. It was in the same spirit that the functions of committees for the inquest of prosecution were given greater powers.
We have basically supported these developments.
Of course, the public's awareness takes time to change, and it is a fact that the reality has yet to catch up with the ideal. It is also necessary to consider the burden of defendants and their families.
But one thing we do not want is a return to the "dead end" of the old criminal justice system.
The inquest of prosecution system needs to be reviewed. Specifically, the system should guarantee defendants a chance to present their side of the story and ensure that better-qualified legal experts and others are around to assist committee members in the examination of decisions by prosecutors.
Above all, society must come to fully embrace the principle of presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
To proceed smoothly with the system's review along these lines, we must always bear in mind the fundamental purpose of the legal reforms and debate the issue calmly and objectively.
Three court-appointed attorneys who acted as prosecutors in the Ozawa trial decided on May 9 to appeal the Tokyo District Court ruling. When the verdict was handed down, we stated that an appeal would not be necessary.
However, we now accept their decision as something that was reached after careful examination of the current system.
Efforts must continue to improve the criminal justice system. In the process, it will be important to think about what it means for prosecutors to appeal in seeking a verdict they can be satisfied with, irrespective of whether it is a case of mandatory indictment or regular indictment.
--The Asahi Shimbun, May 22
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