Statute of limitations in slayings hit

Kin of victims take action to abolish system that 'rewards' criminals who can evade capture

by Miya Tanaka

Kyodo News

With less than three years left before the statute of limitations runs out on the 1996 murder of his daughter, Kenji Kobayashi knew he would regret it if he allowed the clock to tick away without taking action.

The 62-year-old Kobayashi, compelled to act on behalf of relatives of victims of unsolved crimes to abolish the century-old statute of limitations system, is forming a group with relatives of murder victims to generate public attention.

They have gotten the government’s attention, but their struggle contrasts with the efforts of other crime victims’ families, who have managed to bring about changes in the legal system over recent years in line with their demands, including allowing people victimized by crimes to take part in criminal trials.

“What is the statute of limitations for? Is it a reward for the criminal for managing to evade capture for a certain period?” Kobayashi asked. “The next of kin in cold cases feel the same regarding the statute of limitations . . . and if we start to raise our voices together, even a mountain could move.”

Responding to the demand for a review of the system, the Justice Ministry set up a study group Jan. 22 to consider extending or possibly abolishing the statute of limitations for serious crimes such as murder.

“The victims have raised questions about the issue, and we must accept it and consider it,” a ministry official said in explaining why the study commenced even though the statute of limitations for capital crimes was extended in 2005 to 25 years from 15.

The relatives’ group, to be officially launched later this month with the name Sora no Kai, is being promoted by five members, including Kobayashi and Yoshiyuki Miyazawa, 80.

Miyazawa’s son and daughter-in-law and their two children, aged 8 and 6, were slain in their home in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, around New Year’s Eve 2000. The murdered wife’s sister, An Irie, is also involved in the group.

The remaining two members lost loved ones in cases for which the statute of limitations has already expired. The family of Briton Lindsay Ann Hawker, who was slain in Chiba in 2007 in the apartment of a Japanese man who remains at large, will cooperate with the group, they said.

Kobayashi is hoping about 30 families join.

But for Kobayashi, standing at the forefront of the campaign required determination, especially because he had purposefully concealed his face from the media for fear of being targeted by his daughter’s killer.

“I thought that public awareness would not grow unless I revealed myself to make an appeal,” he said. “I also couldn’t help feeling Junko was asking us, ‘Dad, mom, what are you doing?’ “

Junko Kobayashi, 21, a senior at Sophia University, was found stabbed to death in the family’s home in Katsushika Ward, Tokyo, in September 1996, just two days before she was to leave to study in the United States.

“As I wasn’t able to go to college . . . I was happy when I saw her enjoying campus life. I was proud of my daughter,” said Kobayashi, who carries copies of his daughter’s English essays.

Miyazawa, whom Kobayashi believes is a vital member of the group due to the “large impact” the brutal slaying of his son’s family had on society, was initially reluctant to join because he felt “embarrassed” to appear in public.

But Kobayashi’s enthusiasm moved Miyazawa, who also thought about how he would feel if he learned who the killer was after the 15-year statute of limitations expired.

“I can’t say that I won’t think about killing the perpetrator even if I’ll face the death penalty for doing so,” Miyazawa said.

Besides seeking to abolish the statute of limitations on homicides, the group also wants prosecutors to be able to file indictments against unidentified suspects if DNA evidence is available.

The Justice Ministry official said its study group, which plans to issue a report by March, will probably touch on such indictments, known as “John Doe” DNA complaints in the U.S.

The statute of limitations, a concept Japan adopted from France in 1882, is commonly believed to have been introduced because evidence can be scattered or lost over time, making it difficult to prove who committed a crime. Another reason is that demands for harsh penalties can wane with the passage of time.

But proving crimes in court, even after many years have passed, has become less of a challenge due to advances in criminal investigation technology, including DNA analysis, which have made it possible to preserve evidence over a long period of time.

Takashi Michitani, a professor at Himeji Dokkyo University in Hyogo Prefecture, said the dominant view in recent times is that statutes should be considered from the viewpoint of respecting the social relations a perpetrator has formed while at large.

Michitani thinks the system exists because of various reasons but acknowledged there has not been significant discussions that take in the views of crime victims’ families.

Michitani said the government must consider whether it should extend the 25-year statute of limitations, instead of abolishing it altogether, because he does not see the point of using taxpayer money to continue investigations even after the next of kin of murder victims have died.

Any changes to the system, however, would not apply to the cases involving Kobayashi and Miyazawa, in line with the Penal Code, which stipulates that “when punishment is changed by law after the commission of a crime, the lesser punishment shall be applied.”

But Isao Okamura, chairman of the National Association of Crime Victims and Surviving Families, which also wants the statute of limitations ended, said the purpose of the campaign is to prevent the same kind of suffering being inflicted on others.

“We don’t think abolition of the statute will always lead to a culprit being caught. But I feel there is significance in creating a society with a moral — that a person who commits a crime will be pursued forever,” Okamura said.

He also said the association’s focus will shift to the statutes now that its long-standing demand to allow people victimized by crimes to participate in trials was achieved in December.