South Korea launches trial by jury

DAEGU, South Korea - South Korea on Tuesday launched its experiment with trial by jury as it seeks to reform an antiquated legal system left over from decades of strong-man rule into one more suited to a modern democracy.

South Korea’s parliament approved sweeping judicial reform last year in order to change a mostly closed legal system that is heavily reliant on paperwork to one where testimony and evidence presented in open court are given greater importance.

South Korea’s first juries will play an advisory role to the judge. They will consist of nine, seven or five members with the larger juries used for more serious crimes. Their non-binding verdicts will be based on majority votes.

Yoon Jong-gu, the Daegu District Court judge presiding over a robbery trial, the first involving a jury, said he would accept its judgment as long as it does not violate the constitution or the law.

The inaugural jury was selected from 70 prospective panelists in a festive atmosphere, with those rejected for duty feeling disappointed.

“It just wasn’t my lucky day,” said Kim Hae-ryon as he left the courtroom about three hours southeast of Seoul by train.

The nine-person jury, with three backup jurors, heard the case of a 27-year-old man accused of armed robbery against a 70-year-old woman. The defendant, a motorcycle courier, admitted to the crime but said he and his younger sister needed money to pay off debt collectors who were threatening them.

The prosecution, in an impassioned closing argument rarely heard in South Korean courtrooms, said the matter at hand for the jury was whether the accused broke the law and deserved to be punished, not whether he was in a difficult predicament.

The jury has yet to reach a verdict.

Experts said it may take years before juries are allowed to decide cases on their own as judges, prosecutors, lawyers and ordinary citizens need to agree on a process that can work.

But many welcomed the change in a country that only started to embrace the rule of law at about the time it held its first democratic presidential election in 1987.

“This is a significant step for the spirit of democracy in that the people are not only the beneficiary or the victim of the legal system, but an important part in making the system work,” said Ahn Kyong-whan, the head of South Korea’s independent Human Rights Commission and a long-time advocate of the jury system.

Neighbor Japan is also looking to introduce the jury system.

Experts said the government also needed to build an adequate system of public defenders because legal fees are out of the reach of many citizens.

Seoul National University professor on criminal law Cho Kuk said a government-funded public defender network needs to be introduced to ease concerns that “the rich will walk and the poor will be guilty”.