Tuesday’s ruling in which a 27-year-old man was sentenced to death for the 1999 murders of a mother and her infant daughter in Yamaguchi Prefecture marks a major judicial change, according to legal experts.
The Hiroshima High Court handed down the death penalty to the defendant, reversing its earlier ruling of life imprisonment made in 2002. The retrial took place following an order by the Supreme Court in 2006 that the high court revisit the case with a mind to meting out capital punishment.
“This ruling has a significant meaning (to judge whether the death penalty should be imposed on juvenile perpetrators) and sets a new precedent,” said Hidemichi Morosawa, a professor of criminal law and victimology at Tokiwa University in Ibaraki Prefecture.
At age 18, the defendant was charged with the murder and rape of Yayoi Motomura, 23, and the murder of her 11-month-old daughter, Yuka, on April 14, 1999, in the victims’ home in Hikari, Yamaguchi Prefecture. His name has been withheld because he was a minor at the time of the crime.
The Yamaguchi District Court imposed a life penalty on the defendant in 2000, a ruling which was upheld by the Hiroshima High Court in 2002. But the Supreme Court sent the case back to the high court in 2006, saying the fact that the killer was a juvenile at the time of the crime was not a decisive reason for avoiding the death penalty.
At issue was whether the high court would impose the death sentence for a crime committed by a minor. The Juvenile Law states that death sentences can only be handed down to people aged 18 and older. People become an adult on their 20th birthday.
Tuesday’s ruling departs from a precedent set in 1983 by the Supreme Court, which handed down the death penalty to Norio Nagayama, who killed four people when he was 19.
The number of victims was one of several key factors, including the gravity of the crimes and motive, that the top court took into consideration at that time to impose the death penalty on a juvenile.
Morosawa said the Hiroshima High Court’s decision indicates that crime victims’ feelings and the social impact caused by the crime have become more essential factors than the number of victims when deciding whether the death penalty is handed down.
Public awareness of crime victims’ feelings may lie behind the judgment, experts said.
In fact, Yayoi Motomura’s husband, Hiroshi, has publicly called for capital punishment for the killer. A law to allow the victims and their relatives to play a greater role during a trial took effect in 2005 in response to demands by crime victims nationwide.
“Japanese courts have long ignored crime victims in trials on criminal cases,” Morosawa said. “It’s natural that the public have come to think that such a situation is wrong.”
Koichi Kikuta, a law professor emeritus at Meiji University who opposes capital punishment, said Tuesday’s ruling lowers the bar set by the Nagayama ruling and heavier punishments against juvenile offenders will be applied from now on.
“It was a conclusion-first sentence,” he said, noting that the high court failed to carefully analyze the background of the crime and what really happened to the defendant at the time of the crime.
“Courts need to strictly judge whether the death penalty should be imposed on a juvenile offender. Today’s ruling lifted the brake (set by the Nagayama ruling)” without sufficient examination of the crime.
Kikuta also pointed out that the ruling was a result of growing public sympathy for crime victims.
But considering the feelings of victims and their families is a different issue from making a legal decision on a criminal case, he said.
“If court rulings are affected by public opinion, it would mean that courts give up judicial power,” he said.