Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the recent lay judge trial of Kanae Kijima, who was found guilty of murdering three men and sentenced to death. The piece focuses on the trial itself and NHK’s attempt to recreate what may have been going on in the lay judges’ minds during the proceedings in order to discuss the whole question of having non-professionals condemn people to death. NHK’s purpose was to understand whether or not capital cases are too much for non-professionals given the emotional burden of having someone’s life in your hands, though they skirted the larger question of whether or not prosecutions of capital crimes, not to mention the executions themselves, are carried out in a way that is appropriate to their gravity. As I pointed out in the first paragraph, owing to political realities the decision to hang is arbitrary, subject to the whim of whoever happens to be the justice minister at a given moment. But even sentencing is arbitrary, as pointed out by the Japan Bar Association, which says that if you’re going to have a team of judges decide on a person’s life, the decision should be unanimous.
Complicating these issues is the special nature of the Kijima case. As I mentioned, the media had already tried and convicted her before she was served a warrant for murder. They had used their own resources to look into her background once the police started investigating her connection to the deaths of two men who committed suicide using the exact same method and who were said to be her former lovers. This was just catnip to the tabloids and wide shows, which discovered a whole trail of lovers from whom she made her living, so to speak. The primary fascination of such a “black widow” case was intensified by a blatantly sexist position that asked how such a homely woman could possibly be this successful as a murderous golddigger. The circumstantial evidence presented by the media pointed to only one conclusion, that she killed at least three of her lovers because she was afraid that once she broke off their respective relationships they would ask her to return money they had paid her. Part of Kijima’s defense was that two of these men, the ones police first ruled as suicides (the third died accidentally in a fire), were so heartbroken that they killed themselves. In the context of how the media had already presented the case, this defense strategy sounded desperate at best, ludicrous at worst.
But the fact remains that the prosecution’s only evidence was circumstantial, and they had to surmise a motive since Kijima didn’t talk during interrogations. Though the sum total of this circumstantial evidence was certainly damning, it was difficult to separate the mostly speculative points the media has made and what the prosecution was allowed to present in court. Consequently, the prosecution’s case seemed mostly based on common sense, a highly problematic foundation on which to base a death sentence. In a way that no one found disconcerting, the prosecution used a metaphor to say that despite the lack of material evidence the judges should easily understand Kijima’s guilt: When you wake up in the morning and see snow on the ground where there was none the day before, you know for a fact that it snowed during the night. In other words, you know just by looking at what happened, and don’t really need anyone to prove it. Is that a valid legal argument?