First Criminal Defendant Sentenced to Death by Japanese Lay Judge System

On November 16, 2010, defendant Hiroyuki Ikeda was sentenced to death in Japan for conspiring with another man to kill two other men before dismembering and dumping the bodies. While the death sentence itself is not necessarily noteworthy—50 executions have taken place in Japan since 2000—the method by which the sentence was handed down is groundbreaking. Ikeda is the first man sentenced to death by a Japanese jury since the present lay judge system was implemented in May, 2009.

The lay judge system is a panel of 6 ordinary citizens and 3 professional judges who were selected to adjudicate the most serious of crimes, including murder. The panel both renders a verdict and hands down sentences by majority vote. A guilty verdict must be supported by at least one of the professional judges and at least 2 of the lay-judges, otherwise the defendant is acquitted. After an indictment, a pool of 50-100 potential lay-judges are selected from registered voters and the presiding judge questions the candidates to narrow the pool to evaluate their ability to render a fair judgment. Later in the process, lawyers and prosecutors join in to further narrow the candidate pool. The purpose of the system is to create speedier trials and expedite the adjudication process.


  1. On a follow up note to this post: less than 2 weeks after the first death sentence under the Lay Judge system, on November 27, 2010, a panel sentenced a minor to death for the first time under the new system. The defendant, who as an 18 year old committed a double murder, pled guilty to the charges leaving punishment as the only issue for the panel. They weighed factors such as the brutality of the crime, the nature of the defendant’s remorse and the potential for rehabilitation and arrived at the death sentence despite the guilty plea. The sentence is consistent with the overall public sentiment in Japan for tougher punishment for juveniles. A 2006 survey showed that 90 percent of professional judges would commute sentences for juveniles as opposed to only 25 percent of ordinary citizens. Which leads to one questions about the lay judge system: can justice really be served with ordinary citizens so prominently involved in the outcome of a criminal trial? Another issue is to consider the toll it takes on the lay judges. Following this trial, one of the lay judges said he was “crushed” by handing down such a heavy punishment. Is it fair to the lay judges to place this burden upon them?

  2. I think that this system presents a difficult situation for impartiality in the rendering of convictions and sentences in Japan. A judge is bound to remain impartial and provide justice commensurate with the crime. Further, he has ample professional experience in doing so. The concern with the lay judges is that their judgment and opinion may be biased by personal experience, media coverage, etc. Further, they do not have the same breath of experience in handling many different crimes / circumstances that the professional judge has. I worry that this bias may improperly affect the outcomes of defendants being subjected to this system.

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