NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – After helping deliver prison sentences Friday to two U.S. servicemen guilty of rape, lay judges in a high-profile trial in Okinawa said they suppressed personal emotions to keep their judgment unclouded by anger toward the U.S. military bases in the prefecture.
“The defendant is punished not because he is a U.S. soldier. If he is punished more severely than a Japanese person who has committed the same crime, that would be discrimination by race or nationality,” lawyer Tetsu Amakata said on Feb. 27 as he presented a closing argument while citing precedents.
On Friday, a panel of three professional and six lay judges at the Naha District Court handed a 10-year prison sentence to Christopher Browning, 24, a U.S. Navy seaman, and a nine-year term to Skyler Dozierwalker, 23, a petty officer 3rd class, for raping and injuring a Japanese woman in her 20s in Okinawa last October.
The lawyer said imprisonment of five to six years was the “average term” for gang rape, provided the victim was an adult and sustained only relatively minor physical injuries, and also if the aggression was not premeditated and did not involve weapons.
While the seaman received the 10-year sentence due partly to his conviction in a robbery case, the petty officer’s nine-year term could be seen as relatively harsh.
After the ruling, Amakata said, “I cannot say the sentence is as heavy as to be deemed unjust.” He added, “I believe it reflects the fact that the case took place in Okinawa, and a woman from Okinawa became the victim, and the assailants were servicemen.”
Okinawa hosts large U.S. bases and there have been a number of cases of violence against Japanese women by U.S. servicemen in the prefecture, which from time to time led to major protests and demonstrations.
“I suppressed my emotion because I felt I should not make a wrong judgment not just for the victim but also for the defendants,” a woman who served as an alternate lay judge said at a press conference after the ruling.
While she did not participate in meting out the verdict or sentences, the woman stressed that in determining the severity of the punishment, the judges were not influenced by the fact that the defendants were U.S. sailors.
Four people who served on the lay judge panel made similar remarks at the press conference, saying they ruled out prejudice. One said, “We issued a fair judgment under law.” Another said, “While we did have some feeling because they were American servicemen, we maintained our calmness in making our decisions.”
The Naha District Court has so far held four trials using the lay judge system — introduced in 2009 — in which U.S. service members have been defendants. Of the four, sentences in three cases were lighter than what the prosecution had demanded, as in the latest case.
The prosecution had demanded 12 years for Browning and 10 years for Dozierwalker.
Lay judges who served in the past cases also stressed their fairness, saying they had set aside the defendants’ status as U.S. servicemen and not conflated the cases with the emotionally charged issue of military bases occupying much of the land in Okinawa.
“I cannot forgive U.S. soldiers for conducting offenses repeatedly as they blatantly express their position as an occupier,” said a 77-year-old man living near U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma when asked about the latest ruling. Okinawa was under U.S. rule after the war until 1972 when it was reverted to Japan.
“(Prefectural) residents will not issue unfair verdicts because of (such a sentiment),” he said. “They (lay judges) probably focused on the maliciousness of the crime.”
According to the Supreme Court, sentences for sexual offenses under lay judge trials have proven to be tougher than those issued exclusively by professional judges. The latest verdict bore out the trend.
After the ruling, Judge Hideyuki Suzuki read out a message from the lay and professional judges on the panel he presided over: “Even though you may think that the sentences are harsh, sentiments of the prefectural residents were even harsher.”