Judge overrules jury in libel case

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Judge overrules jury in libel case

A local judge yesterday overturned a jury’s acquittal of a poet accused of defamation, convicting him of criminal slander against Park Geun-hye when she was running for president last year.

Ahn Do-hyun, a famous poet, was prosecuted on charges of posting false accusations against candidate Park on his Twitter account before the December election.

A jury in the trial in Jeonju District Court acquitted him last month, but Judge Eun Taek had the final say. He ruled Ahn guilty of criminal slander against Park but cleared him of a charge of spreading false accusations because, he said, it was hard to discern if Ahn knew whether his comments were true or false.

Days before the presidential election, Ahn made 17 postings claiming that Park was involved in the theft of relics of the late independent activist Ahn Jung-geun, who assassinated Hirobumi Ito, Japan’s colonial ruler of Korea, in 1909. When the postings were made, Ahn was a senior manager of the campaign for Park’s challenger, Moon Jae-in.

“Ahn made the postings not to verify Park’s abilities and qualifications as a president, but to stop her from winning the election by tainting her morally, thus he is guilty of slander,” the court said in its final ruling. “But it is hard to conclude that Ahn realized his accusations were untrue, so he is acquitted of the charge of making public false accusations.”

Introduced in 2008, the jury system in Korea is intended to expand civil participation in criminal trials. As opposed to the U.S. system, the jury’s verdict is not binding, although the presiding judge is encouraged to respect it.

Following a series of controversial verdicts by juries, the legal community has expressed concerns about emotionally-driven verdicts by jurors, particularly in politically-sensitive cases. The trial of Ahn at the Jeonju District Court was the latest such politically-charged case, and the presiding judge chose to overturn the jury’s verdict.

After convicting Ahn of slander, the court said yesterday it would not charge him a 1 million won ($942.5) fine to show respect to the jury’s contrary verdict.

The court also explained why it decided to overturn the jury’s acquittal. “When a jury’s opinion collides against a judge’s professional conscience, the jury’s verdict is only binding as long as it does not violate the fundamentals of conscience,” the court said. “It is not easy for the members of a jury, who are not legal experts, to make a jurisprudential judgment on guilt or innocence. Because of the peculiar nature of the case, the jury could have been swayed by political and regional sentiments.”

The court also said it contemplated which verdict was superior - that of a jury or judge - and concluded that the judge holds the superior position because he has the final responsibility to respect and interpret the law.

Ahn said yesterday he will appeal the ruling. The appeals trial will not have a jury.

He also made several postings on his Twitter account criticizing the court, saying he feels like a butterfly caught in a spider’s web. “The court insulted the jury and me,” Ahn wrote. “It was against the people’s common sense .?.?. This is an emotional and political judgment.”

BY SER MYO-JA [myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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