A new jury system in Japan is changing the way the country tries criminals. Six citizen judges will now decide the fate of those accused of violent crimes instead of professional judges alone. It is the first major overhaul to the country's legal system in more than 60 years. The new system has not been tested in trial yet but it is already causing a debate.

When suspected murderer Katsuyoshi Fujii takes the stand in his trial next month, public attention may focus not be on the 72-year-old but on the jurors deciding his fate. Six people will be called to hear testimony in the case. At the end of the trial, those six will become the first citizen judges to reach a verdict in Japan since World War II.

Defense attorney Satoru Shinomiya will be among a group of lawyers watching the case closely.

"The aim of justice reform is to make our society more free, more fair, and more responsible," said Shinomiya.

Citizen judge system

Shinomiya has been pushing for the "Saiban-in" or citizen judge system for years, and calling for more transparency in the judicial process.

"They say that I am the most optimistic person in the bar but I really do believe in the people," said Shinomiya.

Japan abolished its jury system during World War II, and cases have been decided by a panel of professional judges.

The current system gives prosecutors extensive powers, but defense attorneys argue those powers go to far too far. Prosecutors are allowed to detain and interrogate a suspect for 23 days, without a defense attorney present, and force them to make written statements and confessions. Nearly 100 percent of indictments resulted in convictions.

Makoto Miyazaki, the president of the country's bar association describes those cases as "hostage trials" where suspects were detained until they confessed.

He says that anyone who has witnessed trials in Japan knows that they are not trials where lawyers and prosecutors debate the facts. It is simply a forum for prosecutors to hand over documents to the judge.

That criticism has grown louder since a 62-year-old man who was wrongly convicted was released from prison last month. Toshikazu Sugaya served 17 years behind bars for the murder of a young girl. He said prosecutors forced him to confess to a crime he did not commit. He was freed after a new test revealed his DNA did not match that on the victim's body.
"If the 'Saiban-in' were there, at least they would have listened to the argument seriously, carefully," said Sugaya.

Legal process

Six jurors will now decide cases involving serious, violent crimes. Three professional judges will work with them to guide them through the legal process. Jurors will be chosen randomly from voter registration rolls, although politicians, legal professionals, the elderly and students will be exempt from serving.

The hope is this new process will increase understanding of the country's judicial system, keep prosecutors in check, and promote civic responsibility.
Former Supreme Court Judge Kunio Hamada says it forces Japanese to think independently.

"This is a great social experience," said Hamada. "Hopefully by going through this process there will be more Japanese citizens capable of formulating their opinion in international scenes."

But potential jurors are not exactly eager to give those opinions. Polls conducted in April showed about half of the public did not want to serve. Hamada says that is not surprising in a society that does not promote independence. He says people often worry about public opinion and do not like to separate from the pack.

More than 130 suspects are scheduled to stand trial under the new system. But those who supported it are already pushing for more changes. They want police interrogations video-taped and checks in place to make sure judges do not influence jurors in deliberation rooms.

They also want to require jurors to give a unanimous decision. The Saiban-in law only requires a majority opinion to decide cases, including death penalty cases. That means debate about the new system is likely to continue even after the first jury trial begins.