Photo: Supreme Court of Korea, with its slogan "Liberty, Equality, Justice". Credit: The Blue Roof.
As a continental legal system, South Korea used to have bench trials for all criminal trials. (See Starter Kit, “South Korea’s Judicial System.”) In 2008, however, a jury trial - formally a “citizen participation trial” 국민참여재판 - was introduced. In a citizen participation trial, the jury’s recommendation to the judge is not binding. However, if the judge departs from the jury’s recommendation, she is required to explain her reasoning. This has been enough to cause the judges to accept the jury’s conclusion in over 90% of the cases.
The idea behind introducing jury trials was to produce results that aligned with the people’s sense of justice. In some cases, however, the people’s sense of justice is not particularly progressive. A recent survey by attorney Im Jae-seong 임재성 shows that defendants accused of sex crimes often select a citizen participation trial, which has a significantly higher acquittal rate relative to bench trials. From 2008 to 2017, the acquittal rate for sex crimes under jury trial was 18%, while the acquittal rate for sex crimes under bench trial was 2.4%. Even within jury trials, the acquittal rate for serious crimes (i.e. homicide, robbery and assault) other than sex crimes was 8%.
Since 2018, jury trials’ acquittal rate for alleged sex crimes has skyrocketed, hitting 48% in 2020. This is presumably because of the reputation that jury trials have developed as being favorable for sex crimes trial, making defendants self-select. According to Professor Hong Jin-yeong 홍진영 교수 of Seoul National University 국립서울대학교, acquittal in sex crimes often occurred when the victim was involved in or adjacent to prostitution, or the defendant was previously dating the victim - a case of sexist culture seeping into the legal standard applied in jury trials.