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A violent death, some justice, few answers in Furlong case

With damning autopsy and evidence suggesting pair planned to rape, lawyers faced huge challenge defending American accused of killing Irish student

by David Mcneill

Bad guys rarely live up to their reputation, and so it was with James Blackston. Portrayed in the Irish media as a fearsome, muscle-bound rapper, in court he was a diminutive, baby-faced figure, his tattoos covered up by a cheap prison suit, mumbling his way through an incomprehensible defense for sexual assault.

A professional dancer known by his stage name “King Tight,” Blackston, was unaware he was being filmed by a surveillance camera as he mauled an unconscious girl from behind in a Tokyo taxi on May 24 last year. His friend, a 19-year-old fellow American whom The Japan Times has decided not to name because he is a minor (but whose identity has been widely disseminated in the foreign media), sat in the front seat. The fourth passenger was 21-year-old Irish student Nicola Furlong, also unconscious. She had less than three hours to live.

The camera records what would become key prosecution evidence in the trials of both men, a conversation full of leering, predatory braggadocio. “These bitches fell into our lap,” says one. “We can f—k them,” says the younger one. “We gotta keep them f—ked up.” Then Blackston: “We are going to f—k them and leave them in my room.” At one stage the men exchange fist bumps.

Last week, nine months later, the accused minor would dismiss all this as “meaningless talk” in the Tokyo District Court. The prosecution thought otherwise, painstakingly translating every word and reading it aloud in court, occasionally fumbling over black American slang. When the defendant said, “I can’t wait to get to ATM,” did he mean, as he testified, that he was anxious to pay back his friend the money he had borrowed that night, or was it a euphemism for sodomy followed by oral sex?

The narrative of what happened on May 24 is now well known, at least until the women were carried unconscious to the hotel rooms of Blackston and his friend. The four met after a Nicki Minaj concert in Odaiba. The men testified that they were reluctant participants in the night’s activities, initially approached, then led on by two sexually aggressive women who wanted to “party,” according to the minor. Nicola Furlong’s surviving friend tearfully testified otherwise.

Later, at a bar near Shibuya Station, when the women suddenly and mysteriously fell unconscious, the Americans took them back to the Shinjuku Keio Plaza, where the duty manager helped ferry them upstairs in wheelchairs and onto the men’s beds. Neither was interested in sex with the women, they said; they were simply being kind. The minor told the court he couldn’t “morally” condone leaving them behind in the bar.

Blackston failed to convince a judge of this story in his trial for sexual assault. Handing him a sentence of three years with labor last Wednesday, the judge said the 23-year-old had taken advantage of a victim who “was not able to resist.” There was “no evidence of consent,” he said, in either the case of the Irish student or in another separate assault uncovered against a Brazilian woman who Blackston had described as a “groupie.” He had kept pictures of the sleeping woman’s genitals on his iPad.

Throughout his trial, Blackston cut an oddly lonely figure. Not one family member attended the multiple hearings, or the verdict. He came in blinking under court lights every day, looking for a rare friendly face in the public gallery. One of the defense team occasionally seemed to nod off. Blackston was oblivious to the impact his odd testimony — portraying himself as a good Samaritan to comatose women — would have in a legal system where remorse and reflection is rewarded.

The younger man’s lurid defense in his two-week murder trial also raised eyebrows. According to his testimony, Nicola Furlong came around in Room 1427 of the Keio Plaza and wordlessly indicated she wanted rough sex. He obliged by “lightly” throttling the exchange student, but not enough to kill her. Even when Furlong began to cough up blood, she wanted to continue, he said. At one point he recalled her using one hand to beckon him over and the other to reveal her vagina. He described himself as a “gentleman” for following her wishes.

Prosecutors believe Furlong woke up as she was being sexually assaulted and that the American throttled her, probably with a bath towel. Kenichi Yoshida, the physician who conducted the autopsy, testified that she died in “great distress” after being strangled for “minutes.” The defendant insisted throughout that his “light pressure” had lasted only 30 seconds. His lawyers argued till the end that a combination of alcohol and prescription drugs in Furlong’s bloodstream had contributed to her death, ignoring the testimony of Dr. Yoshida, who called that “irrelevant.”

A talented keyboard player and a church-going Christian, the 19-year-old defendant had little of Blackston’s cockiness. For most of his trial, which ended last week, he sat head bowed, avoiding the glare of Furlong’s parents, Angela and Andrew, who sat feet away. “I don’t take my eyes off him,” said Nicola’s mother after the trial began, as though she was searching his impassive face for answers.

His family watched from the public gallery, ignoring reporters, his mother nervously clutching her hands beneath a scarf, his brother occasionally closing his eyes in apparent silent prayer. On her way out of court on Wednesday, his mother whispered, “I love you.”

Unlike the trials of Joji Obara and Tatsuya Ichihashi for the deaths of Britons Lucie Blackman and Lindsay Hawker, respectively, Japanese reporters have stayed away. In the cold calculus of crime reporting, a foreign-on-foreign murder simply does not have the same racial frisson as a case involving a Japanese. The public gallery filled up with Irish reporters, law students and court otaku, all of whom took notes, perhaps noting the reactions of two ordinary families from other sides of the world caught up in what Angela Furlong called “the nightmare of nightmares” — the death of a child thousands of miles from home.

Race, of course, has not been entirely absent. The defense has obliquely argued throughout the trial that the prosecution mistook the bragging in the taxi for real intent. “When you say ‘my nigga,’ it’s just the way you talk in your community, right?” quizzed his lawyers at one point. Toxic racist rants about the two assailants have been widely posted on the Internet, mostly by people with only a fleeting acquaintance with the case.

The climax of the trial came last Wednesday when the younger defendant was asked if he wanted to address the panel of nine judges. Instead, looking directly at Andrew and Angela Furlong, who sat behind the prosecutor’s desk, he said, “I look dead in your eyes today and tell you that your daughter did not suffer.” He said he “prayed” for the Furlongs, “not as my enemy, not as my accusers, but the same as my family and friends.”

“I do not want to break your heart any more than it is. Mrs. Furlong, it truly saddens my heart to see you crying,” he continued. At one point, Nicola’s mother looked away in apparent disgust. When warned by the court to stop addressing the Furlongs, he turned toward the panel of judges and said: “I feel very sorry for their loss. I firmly believe I did not kill their daughter. That is from the bottom of my heart.”

The judges are unlikely to believe him. Even had he not entered the courtroom facing a system-wide conviction rate of more than 99 percent, his defense was weak. Defense lawyers tried to portray Nicola Furlong as a drug addict because of needle marks on her thighs. The examining doctor in the emergency room of the Tokyo Medical University Hospital explained, however, that the wounds were the result of attempting to take blood from her lifeless body. The grotesque, misfired strategy was a mark of desperation.

With his conviction, Blackston will take up residence in a Japanese prison, where talking is banned and he will be forced to work in silence for about ¥5,000 a month. His friend faces five to 10 years in jail when the decision is announced in his case today. Prosecutors want more but at 19 he is a minor under Japanese law.

Two sets of families leave Japan this week without answers to a sordid, heartbreaking crime. But only one can expect their child to eventually return home.

Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp .

  • Jim Baker

    In the past 10 years that I have lived in Japan this has been the most interesting article I have read to date and I hope to hear more about it at some point as to how the verdicts arrived and how much time they actually get and to know if the minor that did manage to try to apologize and show remorse will he be able to return home eventually.
    I also would like to know if Japanese prisons allow hand written letters to the inmates like American prisons do or is that not allowed at all either? The reason why I am asking is because there may still be hope for that minor child.

    • MissTrixie

      I doubt there is much hope for either of them. They both lied on the stand and are obviously dead to all human feeling or compassion. If the minor showed remorse, it was probably only because his lawyer told him to do so. They are not sorry they committed the crime; they are only sorry they were caught.

    • Paul England

      Generally in the Japanese prison system, you start out with very little privilege. I have read a book on the subject, but can’t remember exactly. I believe for basically the first half of the sentence, communication with the outside is severely limited (think 2 letters a month). Some time around the 3rd quarter it lightens up, and during the 4th quarter a lot of time is focused on re-entering society and they give you a significant amount of breathing room and responsibility.

  • MissTrixie

    Why did the deputy manager at the hotel help them take the girls up to the rooms in wheelchairs? What was he thinking? Was he called to testify at the trial? I can’t understand his behavior that night at all.

    • Spudator

      My feelings, too. The article actually states that he helped ferry the women “onto the men’s beds”. Unbelievable! Couldn’t he guess the men’s intentions? Did he feel his business obligations to two men who were paying guests trumped his human obligations to two women who weren’t? Maybe he did; after all, this is Japan.

      Also, I can understand hotel staff turning a blind eye to guests bringing non-guests back to their rooms, but to actually take steps to facilitate such behaviour seems very strange. If the women weren’t guests at the hotel, why was the duty manager knowingly allowing them to occupy rooms?

      This is a heartbreaking story. Had the duty manager shown a little more foresight, intelligence and concern for the welfare of the women, he could have prevented Nicola Furlong’s death. Instead, his actions that night–even though carried out unwittingly and with good intentions–appear to have contributed to the tragedy.

    • AmIJustAPessimistOrWhat?

      That’s exactly what I thought. If in his heart there was even a flicker of knowing it was wrong, then he is guilty of aiding and abetting a crime. I would say at least the hotel should be financially liable for not providing the necessary training on how to react in such a situation.