Value of jury system is questionedFollowing a series of controversial verdicts rendered by a jury, a Jeonju District Court judge has postponed his ruling in a high-profile election law violation case, questioning the effectiveness of the country’s jury trial system.
Eun Taek, 51, senior judge of the Jeonju District Court, postponed Monday his verdict on the case involving poet Ahn Do-hyun. Ahn was prosecuted on charges of posting false accusations against Park Geun-hye, then the presidential candidate for the Saenuri Party, using his Twitter account during last year’s election.
Before the trial began Monday morning, Representative Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party, who ran against Park during the presidential election, defended Ahn outside the courtroom.
“He is one of the most celebrated poets of our time, and he can even be a Nobel Prize winner,” Moon said. “It is embarrassing for us to humiliate him with this absurd charge.”
In his closing argument, Ahn said he felt it was extremely unfair to have been charged with violating the election law.
After more than 12 hours of proceedings and deliberations, the seven-member jury found Ahn not guilty of the charges. Judge Eun, however, did not immediately uphold the acquittal and postponed the sentencing, asking for more time to deliberate on the jury’s decision.
“Because the jury’s verdict is different from the judiciary’s verdict, I will postpone the sentencing until Nov. 7,” Eun said.
Introduced in January 2008, the jury system in Korea is intended to expand civil participation in criminal trials. In some criminal cases, defendants can choose whether they want the jury trials. As opposed to the U.S. system, the jury’s verdict is not binding, although the presiding judges are encouraged to respect it.
In an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo on Tuesday, Eun said he has done so because he worried that public distrust of jury trials will grow as a result of the latest series of emotional judgments.
When asked why he decided to postpone the sentencing, Eun said he wanted to respect the jury’s verdict as much as possible by spending enough time to seriously think it over.
“After the Naggomsu trial, concerns grew that the jury trial was being abused in order to indulge politically sensitive cases,” Eun said. “Because public distrust of the jury trial system was deepening, I thought long and hard before announcing the delay.”
Eun was referring to the case last week in which the Seoul Central District Court acquitted a well-known journalist and the host of a liberal podcast program, nicknamed “Naggomsu,” of several charges, including spreading false and defamatory information about Park Ji-man, the younger brother of President Park, and their father, the late President Park Chung Hee.
Kim Ou-joon, the show’s host, and Choo Chin-woo, a reporter and a regular guest on the show, were cleared of all charges by a citizens’ jury, and the court upheld the verdict.
Citing the latest series of controversial verdicts rendered by a jury, Eun said the system has its limit.
“The jurors are not law experts,” he said. “They can reach a conclusion that is different from the professional judges’ legal judgments. If the judge’s decision - which should be based on the law and his professional conscience - is in line with the jury’s verdict, there should be no problem. But when they don’t agree, a problem arises.”
Eun stressed that the judges are not required to accept the jury’s verdict, but that they cannot completely disregard it. “Because the jurors’ verdict was unanimous this time, I really thought seriously whether I should accept it or rule it out to give an independent ruling,” Eun said.
It’s not the first time a judge has overturned the jury’s verdict in a high-profile case. In June, a jury made a unanimous decision to acquit a man who was accused of sexually assaulting a teenage girl, but the Ulsan District Court overturned the ruling and convicted him.
The legal community has expressed concerns before about emotionally driven verdicts by jurors, particularly in politically sensitive cases, and experts have stated that trials by jury should be restricted in order to boost confidence in the system.
“You cannot ask what the political leaning of a potential juror is during jury selection,” said Song Jong-seon, a lawyer who has participated in 40 jury trials. “Jurors are looking at the case with slightly tilted views. The judiciary needs to use its authority to rule out sensitive cases to prevent controversies.”
Representative Shim Jae-chul, a member of the ruling Saenuri Party’s Supreme Council, argued yesterday that politically sensitive cases must be excluded from jury trials to ensure validity and neutrality because Korean society still has so many regional divides. “During the presidential election, [opposition candidate] Moon [Jae-in] garnered 86 percent of the votes in Jeonju, and I suspect that must have been the basis for the jurors’ acquittal of Ahn,” Shim said. “On the other hand, the jury convicted one defendant on charges that he defamed Park Geun-hye in a trial in the Busan District Court.”
Busan and Gyeongsang provinces are Park strongholds.
At the National Assembly’s audit on the Seoul High Court on Tuesday, lawmakers and senior judges discussed efforts to improve the effectiveness of the jury system.
“Legal principles defining defamation and election law violations are very tricky,” said Representative Kweon Seong-dong of the Saenuri Party. “Even when I was a prosecutor, I got confused when I studied precedents.”
Cho Byung-hyun, chief justice of the Seoul High Court, agreed and said the judiciary will keep that in mind in future cases.
BY KWON CHEOL-AM, SER MYO-JA [email@example.com]