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America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

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With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

Japan: Capital punishment for a minor

Death chamber at Tokyo Detention Center
Death chamber at Tokyo Detention Center
The Supreme Court's recent decision to uphold the death sentence given in a lay judge trial to a 24-year-old man for murders he committed when he was a minor raises questions about the lay judge trial system and capital punishment. These include whether the lay judges correctly understood the spirit of the Juvenile Law in sentencing the defendant to death. It was the 1st death sentence handed down on a minor in a lay judge trial.

The murders took place in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, in 2010 when Yutaro Chiba was 18 - meaning he fell under the purview of the Juvenile Law. Chiba was convicted of entering his ex-girlfriend's house and stabbing to death the girl's sister and a female friend of the girl with a butcher knife, seriously injuring a male friend of the sister and abducting the girl. Prosecutors said Chiba killed the victims because they were trying to separate him and his former girlfriend.

Since Chiba pleaded no contest to the key facts presented by the prosecution, the severity of punishment was the main issue in the trial, which was handled by a team of three professional and 6 lay judges, at the Sendai District Court. In its November 2010 ruling, the court said that in view of the heinousness of his crimes, the fact that Chiba was a minor at the time did not constitute sufficient reason to avoid capital punishment. The decision was upheld in 2014 in an appellate trial handled solely by professional judges at the Sendai High Court.

The district court trial lasted 11 days. 5 hearings were held and the judges spent two days deciding on the penalty. During the trial, Chiba's lawyers argued that he was mentally immature, that his crimes were not premeditated and that a doctor's record of his examination pointed to the possibility that he could be rehabilitated. A legitimate question is whether the judges had enough time to examine the family environment of the accused and whatever reflection he had over his crimes. It must be asked whether the judges had fully considered and discussed the prospect of his rectification, in view of the Juvenile Law's main principle of helping problem youths achieve rehabilitation.

Chiba's family was fatherless. Under the Juvenile Law, a family court can send a minor to prosecutors if its judges deem such a move is appropriate. But the law also says that in examining the behavior of a minor and his or her personal history and family environment, a family court should use the expertise of medicine, psychology, pedagogy and other branches of learning. Regarding a crime committed by a minor who is under the age of 18, a court cannot hand down a death sentence.

The Supreme Court and the Justice Ministry should consider whether lay judge trials, whose durations tend to be short, are suitable for handling serious crimes committed by minors. They also should think about whether it is appropriate to have lay judges participate in trials that may result in giving the death penalty because experience shows that handing down such a sentence puts an enormous psychological burden on lay judges.

In 1983, the Supreme Court adopted a criterion comprising nine factors for sentencing someone to death, which said in a nutshell that a court can hand down the death penalty only when it is unavoidable in view of the gravity of the crimes of the accused. Under this criterion, the age of defendants when they commit their crimes was considered a key factor in trials involving minors. But this trend changed when the Supreme Court in 2006 remanded the case involving the 1999 murder in Hikari, Yamaguchi Prefecture, of a 23-year-old woman and her baby daughter by a boy - who had just turned 18 - to the Hiroshima High Court. The Supreme Court upheld the death penalty for him in 2012.

The judges in the Sendai trial are likely to have followed the trend set by the top court's handling of the Hikari case. In supporting the lower court rulings, the Supreme Court's First Petty Bench in a 5-0 ruling pointed out that in view of the serious nature of the crimes - that 2 people were murdered out of the accused's selfish motive - his criminal responsibility was extremely heavy even though he was a minor when he committed the murders and had no prior record.

The tendency to impose tougher punishment on crimes committed by minors appears to have set in. Through revisions of the Juvenile Law, the minimum age at which minors can face criminal punishment has been lowered from 16 years of age to 14 and the upper limit for a fixed prison term was raised from 15 years to 20. The Supreme Court and the Justice Ministry should rouse public discussions on whether imposing stricter punishment, including hanging, on minors will really contribute to reducing crimes by providing concrete data as well as information on how other countries cope with crimes by minors.

Source: Editorial, The Japan Times, June 24, 2016

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