NAHA, Okinawa — In the first Japanese citizen jury trial of a U.S. servicemember, a Marine private first class was sentenced to three to four years in prison Thursday for robbery and injuring a cab driver.
Jonathan Kim, 19, assigned to Camp Kinser, pleaded guilty Monday to cutting the 58-year-old cab driver with a knife while robbing him of 21,000 yen and $100 in cash the night of Aug. 1 in downtown Naha. Following the guilty plea, the jury spent three days in the sentencing phase of the trial to review evidence, question Kim and hear testimony.
Local press and legal experts closely followed the trial, the first of a servicemember since Japan began a new jury system in May 2009 that uses lay juries instead of only a panel of judges to determine guilt in major crimes. The jurors, picked at random from the community and screened before trial, may directly question witnesses and defendants and also participate in determining sentences in cases involving guilty pleas.
Seigo Nakano, professor of criminal law and procedures at Okinawa International University, brought one of his classes to observe the trial.
“The lay judge system is still in the trial-and-error stage,” he said.
Throughout the trial, the six lay jurors — five women and one man — sat on a raised bench flanking the three-judge panel as they listened to evidence and posed their own questions.
According to the prosecution’s opening statement, Kim told investigators that he robbed the cabbie to show he was macho enough to be accepted for Marine Corps special operations duty.
“He thought that the quickest way to achieve that goal was to show his supervisors his ability to be aggressive,” the prosecutor said.
The jurors jumped on that statement in questioning Kim.
“Is it a fad among Marines to rob cab drivers like some game?” one juror asked.
Kim admitted that his motive was wrong and silly and apologized.
His chief defense attorney, Yuji Fujita, used it to argue for a sentence more lenient than the six years the prosecutor sought.
“Such a leap in logic shows his mental immaturity,” he said.
The driver suffered minor injuries, according to evidence produced at the trial.
The jurors insisted the chief judge read a statement to Kim after sentencing.
“We want you to reflect and think why you committed such a crime,” the jury stated. “We know you can rehabilitate. You have strength to become a good, law-abiding citizen. We believe in you.”
In a press conference following the sentencing, the lay jurors conceded that deciding someone’s fate was very difficult. They said they were able to set aside the fact Kim was a servicemember and the anti-base movement on Okinawa that is surging after the government’s recent decision to build a new Marine air facility on Okinawa.
Unlike jury decisions that must be unanimous to convict a criminal defendant in the U.S., lay jury decisions in Japan must be a simple majority, with at least one judge voting with the majority.
A major change in the new system is the length of trials. Because citizens are now involved, trials continue daily through their conclusion, unlike the more leisurely pace usual in judge-only cases.
In the past, trials could stretch out over months, sometimes years, in short sessions every other week or so to accommodate the schedules of judges and lawyers while defendants languished in jail.
Kim was taken into custody by military police two days after the incident. He has been held in the Naha Detention Center since his indictment in October. His trial took four days.
Dressed in a black suit, Kim stood silent, his head bowed, as the sentence was handed down. Occasionally during the 30-minute session, he glanced back at his mother, who had traveled from their home in Philadelphia to support him.