Death-row inmates may testify / Former Aum members may be called in Hirata lay judge trial

Former senior members of the Aum Supreme Truth cult could be the first death-row inmates to appear as witnesses in front of lay judges.

Makoto Hirata, 47, is a former Aum member indicted for his alleged involvement in the 1995 abduction and confinement of the chief clerk of the Meguro public notary office in Tokyo and other offenses.

During pretrial conference procedures, the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office applied to the Tokyo District Court to call three former Aum members on death row as witnesses against Hirata, it has been learned.

The court will decide whether to allow the requested prisoners-- Yoshihiro Inoue, 43; Tomomasa Nakagawa, 50; and Yasuo Hayashi, 55--to testify.

According to a finalized ruling, Inoue directly supervised three incidents including the abduction of the chief clerk in February 1995. Hirata is said to have taken part, as a lookout and in other roles.

The other two incidents were a bombing of an apartment building in Suginami Ward, Tokyo, and the firebombing at Aum's Tokyo headquarters in Minato Ward, both in March 1995.

Nakagawa injected the chief clerk, Kiyoshi Kariya, 68, with anesthetic after abducting him, and Hayashi instructed Hirata on how to disappear around August 1995, according to the final rulings.

Pretrial procedures started in July behind closed doors and prosecutors initially planned to use the interrogation records of the three inmates as evidence.

However, they apparently deemed it necessary to call the three as witnesses after the defense indicated it may challenge the contents of the records. Calling death-row inmates as witnesses is extremely rare.

Prosecutors are believed to have asked to question the witnesses in the Tokyo Detention House, and the court decision is attracting public attention. Prosecutors are reportedly considering questioning other former Aum members currently serving sentences.

The district court is likely to make a decision on the request soon and the trial may begin as early as this year.

Under the lay judge system, lay judges can directly listen to exchanges between prosecutors or the defense and witnesses in principle. "It's a basic promise that this takes place at court and there must be a good reason to conduct the examinations in a detention house," an experienced criminal judge said.