|Gallows at Tokyo Detention Center|
Toshiyasu Yonezawa says he committed “murder” when he was performing his civic duty.
The 27-year-old’s “victim” was Sumitoshi Tsuda, himself a convicted killer who fatally stabbed three people in Kawasaki, including the landlord of an apartment.
Tsuda, then 63, was the first person executed under the citizen judge system that was introduced in 2009 to allow ordinary citizens to have a say in the legal process.
Yonezawa was one of the lay judges who demanded capital punishment for Tsuda five years ago.
“I do not want to accept the fact that he was hanged,” said Yonezawa, referring to Tsuda’s execution in late 2015.
After long refusing media requests for comment on Tsuda’s death, Yonezawa agreed to be interviewed by The Asahi Shimbun.
Now an opponent of capital punishment, Tsuda explained how he came to regret his decision and the traumatic effect of being responsible for ending a person’s life. He urged people to “have second thoughts” on death sentences.
Under Japan’s revised judiciary system, citizen judges hear the first trial of serious felony cases, including murder and robbery resulting in death or injury.
Three professional judges and six citizen judges discuss and decide on the verdict in each case. If the judges cannot unanimously agree on a sentence for the guilty party, the punishment is determined by a majority vote. At least five of the judges, including at least one of the professionals, must agree before the sentence is adopted.
Lay judges are duty-bound to keep confidential any developments in their discussions of the trial and the results of majority votes. But they are allowed to give their own opinions about the trials.
“For me, the death penalty used to be somebody else’s problem, but it currently is not,” Yonezawa said. “It is tough for ordinary citizens to be involved in a legal process that can claim someone’s life.”
Yonezawa, a resident of Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, said he has tried to forget the murder suspect, but he sometimes has flashbacks of Tsuda’s face.
“His expressionless face I saw in the courtroom appears in my mind,” Yonezawa said. “I can’t help but think about what he felt in the last moment of his life.”
Yonezawa was a senior at university when he and other judges sentenced Tsuda to death on June 17, 2011, as prosecutors had demanded.
“We determined the ruling after paying due consideration to the feelings of the bereaved families and the defendant’s early background,” Yonezawa said at a news conference following the ruling. “I hope he will reflect on what he did and sincerely accept the sentence.”
At that time, Yonezawa still believed that capital punishment should continue, and that certain criminals in the world deserve to be executed.
The following month, Tsuda dropped his appeal, and his death sentence was finalized.
Yonezawa said he was relieved to hear that because the condemned inmate “accepted the decision that we made after many discussions.”
Shortly after the death sentence was finalized, one of Yonezawa’s close friends said, “So you killed the person.”
Yonezawa was appalled. He had believed that the death penalty is the “heaviest punishment” carried out by somebody else. He had never associated his decision with the notion that he “killed someone” by indirectly involving himself.
But his friend’s words made him think: “Was it a proper decision?” And he had trouble trying to dispel feelings that his decision may have been wrong.
Although Yonezawa attempted to shut his mind and forget the experience, he became nervous each time he heard reports about an execution. He did not tell anybody, but Yonezawa felt relieved when he learned that the inmate put to death was not Tsuda.
But on Dec. 18, Tsuda was executed at the Tokyo Detention House.
“I could not accept it as reality,” Yonezawa said. “I thought if I did not believe the execution had been carried out, I could continue believing Tsuda was alive somewhere.”
Yonezawa refused the flood of requests for media interviews, saying he had nothing to say. He was also focused on his work at a company that he joined after graduation.
Months after Tsuda’s death, Yonezawa said he still does “not want to believe that,” although he is well aware that Tsuda is gone.
“The death penalty is no different than murder except that it is legally authorized,” he said.
After thinking about the capital punishment issue as his own problem, he now opposes the practice.
In 2014, Yonezawa, working with about 20 former citizen judges and others, called on the justice minister to disclose more details about the death penalty to stimulate nationwide discussion on the practice. They also urged the minister to suspend executions for the time being.
“I feel anger toward the fact that the government continues carrying out hangings, even though we are demanding that it should not,” Yonezawa said. “I fear that the executions of inmates sentenced to death under the citizen judge system may be carried out successively, with Tsuda’s hanging as the start.”
In addition to Tsuda’s punishment, nine death sentences under the lay judge system have been finalized.
Yonezawa said he decided to talk to The Asahi Shimbun under his real name because he believes he must continue speaking out so that other citizen judges will not suffer the same feelings that he experienced.
“I would like people to have second thoughts through additional discussions and other efforts before making a decision,” Yonezawa said.
Before the lay judge system was introduced, concerns arose about the psychological impact on ordinary citizens engaged in a legal process that could result in death.
Considering the potential emotional burden, the Supreme Court set up an office to offer counseling and other services to citizen judges.
Yonezawa said the fact that he was involved in a judgment that claimed a life will never disappear. He said that for the rest of his life, he will have to come to grips with that reality.
Yonezawa spoke calmly throughout the interview. But he raised his voice when he sharply said: “I never want to serve as a citizen judge again.”
Source: Asahi Shimbun, May 17, 2016