When Park Kwang-rual received the summons to court, he immediately started wondering what he had done wrong.
“I tried to remember, ‘Did I ever hit someone? Not repay a debt? Was someone suing me?’ ” said Mr. Park, a 41-year-old human resources manager. Only when he answered it did he realize it was a jury summons.
Jung Hae-young, 30, left her summons in a heap of junk mail and did not realize what it was until she had already missed the deadline to seek an exemption. Not sure what it was all about, and reluctant to miss a day of work, she was going to ignore it until she saw the emphatically underlined warning of a $2,000 penalty if she failed to appear.
This year, with little public preparation, South Korea took its first steps toward adopting a jury system. After about 20 mock trials in the second half of 2007, the first real one with a jury took place in February, followed by a series of others.
The change is still provisional, though. After a test period of several years, the Supreme Court is to decide which aspects of the system should be made permanent. For the time being, jurors play only an advisory role; judges are not bound to follow jurors’ opinions about verdicts and sentences.
But legal experts say that citizen participation has already had a discernible impact on the legal process. In a court system with no presumption of innocence, jury trials appear to be leading to a higher rate of acquittals, as jurors debate and question prosecutors’ assumptions.
“This is an enormous change,” said Cho Kuk, a law professor at Seoul National University. “For the first time ever, people are participating in the courtroom as the main actors.”
The introduction of jurors is part of a larger effort to transform a judicial system left over from the Japanese colonial era and the military rule that followed, when the courts were often employed as a weapon against political opponents, into one more suited to South Korea’s now vigorous democracy.
While the administration of the former president, Roh Moo-hyun, had pushed for civic involvement in the courtrooms, the public was hardly consulted in discussions among officials and academics as to what form this should take — even though the lack of public confidence in the judiciary was cited as a main reason for introducing a jury system.
For years, court proceedings here have been opaque affairs, with verdicts often the result of behind-the-scenes deals. Typically, judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers would speak for only a few minutes in open court, otherwise exchanging documents among themselves to settle a case, with no public scrutiny.
“The community formed a privileged class for themselves as if they were friars speaking only Latin,” said Park Hong-kyu, a law professor at Yeungnam University. Courts were viewed as “a professional arena only for special geniuses,” he added.
Now that is changing. And not everyone is comfortable with it.
For one thing, judges and lawyers are not used to explaining their actions to the public. Legal professionals who brief jurors can find the obligation to devote more time to the public aspects of a case a burden.
But by American standards, the pace of even the new style of South Korean justice can be breathtaking.
So far, nearly all the jury trials have been concluded within a day, from jury selection in the morning, to the lawyers’ presentations in the afternoon, to jury deliberations in the evening. The jurors, usually five to nine people, are told that if they cannot reach a unanimous verdict within an hour or so, they must consult the judge for guidance.
Judicial officials defend the fast pace by saying that interviews show that this is what jurors prefer in a country where missing a day of work is almost unthinkable.
“Most jurors said that they would rather stay on late than come back the next day,” said Kang Il-won of the Supreme Court’s judicial policy office.
But Professor Park said he believed that the rush stemmed more from the old habit of minimizing time in court. “If this becomes the practice, it could undermine justice,” he said.
At a murder trial in May here in Suwon, a one-hour drive south of Seoul, the presiding judge, Choi Jai-hyuk, stopped often to explain procedures to the jurors.
Afterward, the jurors said some of the defense lawyers and prosecutors looked bored. But when the lawyers presented their cases, they clearly took up far more time than the judges had anticipated in laying out the evidence, questioning the defendant and witnesses and delivering closing arguments.
And so it was the judges’ turn to look impatient. They began vetoing lawyers’ attempts to display more evidence. As 6 p.m. approached, they signaled that they wanted the lawyers to conclude. (An earlier murder trial with a jury in March went past 10 p.m.)
This time, Judge Choi tried to make sure that things stayed on schedule.
“Is that absolutely necessary?” he asked when the prosecutor, Yoo Chun-yeol, requested a break.
“Please wrap it up,” the judge said, as Mr. Yoo delivered his closing statement, arguing for life imprisonment. “You’re way over your allotted time.”
The hearing ended at 5:40 p.m., and the jurors began their deliberations. By 7:15 p.m., Judge Choi was stationed outside the jurors’ room, waiting to be consulted. A court official peeked in to ask if a verdict had been reached.
At 7:40 p.m., it had, and at 8:04 p.m. Judge Choi sentenced the defendant to life.
One juror, Kim Chul-hoe, 36, said the two hours of deliberation was too short. “The precedents the court gave us for reference showed very different rulings for similar murder cases,” he said. But Mr. Kim, a government bureaucrat, admitted that he would not have wanted to spend more than a day on jury duty.
For lawyers unhappy with the results of these jury trials, there remains the option of appeal to higher courts, where there are no jurors.