How will lay judges deal with latest trial involving Aum cult?

A former Aum Supreme Truth member is on trial facing charges in three cases in which lay judges will for the first time pass judgment on crimes allegedly committed by the cult that shocked society. We will closely watch how the trial unfolds.

The trial of Makoto Hirata, who was arrested when he gave himself up at a police station after 17 years on the run, got under way at the Tokyo District Court on Thursday.

A series of Aum trials was concluded in 2011, with the death sentences of cult guru Chizuo Matsumoto and 12 of his followers finalized. The start of Hirata’s trial marks a resumption of trials on Aum-related incidents.

Hirata was indicted on charges of kidnapping and imprisoning Kiyoshi Kariya, chief of the Meguro notary public office in Tokyo, and planting a bomb at a Tokyo condominium. Both incidents happened just prior to the cult’s sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in March 1995.

In the first hearing, Hirata apologized to Kariya, who died in the aftermath of the kidnapping, and his bereaved family, but denied some of the charges. To what extent can the trial unravel the real picture behind a cult that repeatedly committed crimes as it evolved into a terrorist group?

Attention will center on what former cult leaders currently on death row will say as witnesses in Hirata’s trial. Prosecutors plan to interrogate Yoshihiro Inoue, who served as leader at the two crime scenes, and two other death-row inmates to establish the background to the crimes. As the death-row inmates reportedly expressed their intention to comply with requests to testify as witnesses, new facts could emerge during the hearings.

It is extremely unusual for a death-row inmate to be questioned in a public court hearing.

In preparation for this event, the court will install a bulletproof acrylic panel in front of the gallery. To help the death-row convicts compose themselves when they testify, the court will erect a barrier around the witness stand.

Steps to lighten pressure

The court must take all possible measures to prevent the hearings from being disrupted.

A relative of Kariya, who died after being injected with a large amount of drugs, will participate in the court hearings by taking advantage of the system that allows crime victims or their family members to take part in trials. Under the system, introduced in 2008, crime victims or their family members can question defendants directly in hearings.

Kariya’s family hopes the truth will emerge in court hearings. In the first hearing, Hirata said he had “only served as a lookout and had no awareness of committing a kidnapping.”

Attention is being focused on how the lay judges will determine the facts of the case.

Hearings will be held three to four times a week, with a ruling scheduled for early March. Such a lengthy trial, lasting about two months, will no doubt impose a burden on the lay judges.

Furthermore, the trial involves a cult that committed heinous terrorist attacks. The district court initially chose 400 persons as lay judge candidates, but many of them declined to serve. This may be because they were concerned about the consequences of participating in the trial.

As the trial will impose significant pressure on the lay judges, the presiding judge must provide them with utmost support, paying due heed to their health.