Man who held girl for nine years to serve 14, Supreme Court rules

The Supreme Court on Thursday restored the original 14-year sentence imposed on a man who kidnapped and confined a girl in Niigata Prefecture for nearly a decade.

The ruling upheld an appeal by prosecutors against the reduced 11-year prison sentence handed down by the Tokyo High Court.

At issue was how to calculate the length of a prison term for multiple offenses, and it was the first time the nation’s top court offered a judicial interpretation on the matter.

Nobuyuki Sato, 40, was found guilty by the Niigata District Court of abducting the girl, then 9, on Nov. 13, 1990, as she made her way home from school. He kept her imprisoned in his home in Kashiwazaki in the prefecture until January 2000.

Sato was also found guilty of stealing four camisoles worth some 2,500 yen for his prisoner.

On Jan. 22, 2002, the district court sentenced Sato to 14 years in prison, without specifying the length of each prison term for the two separate charges of abduction and confinement, and theft.

Under the Penal Code, the maximum prison term that can be handed down to defendants who stand trial for multiple crimes is 1.5 times that of the most serious offense — as long as it does not exceed the combined length of the maximum terms of the individual offenses.

Sato was initially facing a 10-year maximum penalty for abduction. But the prosecutors felt this was insufficient, given the victim’s suffering and considering public sentiment, so they added the petty theft charge in a bid to boost the maximum prison term.

But on Dec. 10, 2002, the Tokyo High Court reduced Sato’s prison term to 11 years, calling the ruling by the district court technically wrong. The two charges should be dealt with individually, it ruled. The high court specified the maximum 10 years for the abduction and confinement charge and one year for the theft charge.

In handing down Thursday’s ruling, the No. 1 Petty Bench of the top court said Japanese law does not expect individual sentences to be determined for each charge and then combined.

Presiding Judge Takehisa Fukazawa said that so long as the sentence was within the bounds of the 1.5 times rule set under Article 47 of the Penal Code, it was not bound by legal restrictions and could be freely set.

He said the Supreme Court therefore deems that the district court ruling, as well as the reasons the court gave in handing down that sentence, be maintained.

Sato was arrested in January 2000, after local health officials found and rescued the girl, then 19, from his room on the second floor of a house he shared with his mother.

As a result of her confinement, the woman, now 22, suffered physical injuries, including atrophied leg muscles, and posttraumatic stress disorder.

Prosecutors initially charged Sato with abduction and confinement of a minor resulting in injury, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. The petty theft charge carries a maximum five years in prison.

After the high court ruling, prosecutors appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that prison sentences should not be handed down separately for each charge.

Sato also appealed, with his lawyer arguing that even the reduced 11-year prison sentence was too severe.

Sato’s court-appointed lawyer said he was “surprised” by the latest ruling.

“While the sentence may have been severe because of the uniqueness of the case, it is still an unusual decision,” Takashi Watanabe said. “It is too severe to add a minor offense to make the prison term 14 years. If there is criticism that the legal limit (for abduction and confinement) is too lax, then that should be corrected through legislation.”

The woman’s father released a statement after the Supreme Court ruling saying that no matter what the legal outcome, there was only increased anger and regret, and no healing for the deep hurt that deprived his family of the happiness found in a normal home.

“There is just no way to regain the nine years, two months and 15 days of my daughter’s life during which she could not feel any joy, happiness, pain or sadness as one normally would,” the statement said.

He added that his daughter has gradually come to live a peaceful life, and spends her days watching soccer matches and taking photographs of flowers in the garden with a digital camera.

Although more than three years have passed since her liberation, she still receives counseling from a medical team appointed by the prefecture between two and four times a month.