Lay judges endured heavy burden in trial for serial poisoning deaths

The Yomiuri ShimbunIf the defendant was the perpetrator, the explanation offered makes complete sense. The death sentence ruling was based on such a decision.

The Kyoto District Court handed down the death sentence to Chisako Kakehi in a lay judge trial for a case involving a string of deaths caused by cyanide poisoning in Kyoto, Osaka and Hyogo prefectures.

Kakehi was said to have made four men, including her husband and men she was dating, drink cyanide compounds.

The ruling acknowledged all the charges involving three cases of murder and one involving robbery and attempted murder. The court pointed the finger of blame at the defendant, saying, “These were serial murders by poisoning with the purpose of, among other things, acquiring inheritances.” It described her actions as “extremely malicious and despicable crimes.”

Considering the magnitude of the results of Kakehi’s actions and other factors, the court had no option but to choose the heaviest punishment. The defense team objected to the ruling and filed an appeal.

During the investigation, the police mistakenly judged that no foul play was involved, and no autopsy or checks for drugs or poison were conducted for some of the victims. Police investigators must seriously reflect on this point. Failing to collect direct evidence such as witness statements, prosecutors were forced to prove their case by accumulating circumstantial evidence.

Essential to substantiating the case was the existence of facts that could not be rationally explained unless the defendant was the perpetrator.

The victims’ conditions changed suddenly while they were with the defendant or soon after they had been with her. The defendant benefitted by receiving the victims’ assets after they died. The prosecutors mentioned these common points in all four cases. Traces of cyanide compounds were found around her.

All of these could be considered compelling pieces of circumstantial evidence. It is understandable that the ruling said it was “unthinkable” that a person other than the defendant could have committed the crimes.

Dementia muddied waters

The defendant suffers from dementia. A focal point of the trial was the possible influence of her dementia on her actions.

Kakehi’s testimony in court was inconsistent, such as immediately after she declared she would “remain silent,” she admitted to the murders by saying she gave the men poison. She also repeatedly said she “didn’t remember” certain details.

The defense team insisted the defendant was incompetent to stand trial because of her dementia. Were her statements untrue or the result of her condition? The lay judges must have been forced to make a difficult decision.

Cases like this one, in which the defendant suffers from dementia and their competency to stand trial is a focal point, likely will increase in the years ahead.

Given that this issue involves a defendant’s right to defense, a perfunctory handling of this matter is unacceptable. After the court was adjourned, the lay judges indicated they had requested information such as diagnoses by several doctors to help them make their decision. Through an accumulation of trials, the courts should pursue more appropriate ways to help lay judges make their decisions.

This trial lasted 135 days from the first hearing and required 38 hearings in total. Only a limited number of people are able to serve as lay judges for a trial that lasts this long. Further consideration of steps to reduce the burden placed on lay judges will be essential so many people can participate in such trials.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov. 8, 2017)Speech


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