Death sentence for a minor

Six lay judges and three professional judges at the Sendai District Court on Nov. 25 sentenced a male 19-year-old to death for murdering two people and injuring two others, one of them seriously. This is the second death sentence under the lay judge system introduced in 2009 and the first death sentence against a minor under the system. It is also the first death sentence for a crime committed by a minor since the Hiroshima High Court’s death sentence of 2008, imposed on a man who murdered a housewife and her baby daughter in Hikari, Yamaguchi Prefecture, in 1999 while he was a minor.

The first death sentence under the lay judge system was given by the Yokohama District Court on Nov. 16 to a man who murdered two men, stabbing one of them and beheading the other with an electric saw. The ruling characterized the crime as “relentless, atrocious and inhumane.” But on Nov. 1, the lay and professional judges at the Tokyo District Court opted to give a life sentence to a man who killed a female employee of an ear-cleaning shop and her grandmother in view of the fact that he had fallen into despair because of unrequited love. The ruling said the man should think about why he committed the crime and deepen his self-scrutiny for the rest of his life.

Remarks by two of the lay judges at the Sendai court show that the decision was an agonizing one for the lay judges to make. One said: “I was scared of handing down the sentence. I will continue to be tormented throughout my life.” The other said: “I did not want to serve as a lay judge. It never occurred to me that capital punishment is such a serious matter. It’s tough.” To help people know more about capital punishment and have wide discussions on the issue of the death penalty and to improve the lay judge system, as much information as possible should be made public about the trial, including what the judges discussed.

According to the prosecution, the youth, together with another male youth, entered a second-floor room in his ex-girlfriend’s house in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, in February and stabbed to death the 18-year-old girl’s 20-year-old elder sister and an 18-year-old female friend with a butcher’s knife. He also stabbed and seriously injured a 20-year-old man, who is a friend of the elder sister, then forced the girl to go with him and injured her in the left leg. The prosecution said the male youth committed the crime because his former girlfriend’s elder sister and friend were trying to separate him and the girl. His accomplice has been separately indicted.

The youth pleaded no contest to the core facts presented by the prosecution. Thus the severity of the penalty to be given to him became the main issue. The trial lasted 10 days. Five hearings were held and the judges spent two days deciding the penalty.

The ruling said the youth had strong murderous intent and that even though he was 18 years and seven months old when he committed the crime, his age should not be a mitigating factor because of the cruelty and gravity of the crime. It also said that since the youth lacks empathy with other people’s pain and suffering and his repentance seems superficial, the possibility that he would reform himself is extremely low.

The death sentence came amid a recent trend toward harsher punishments for criminals, including minors. The Juvenile Law, whose aim is to protect and nurture juveniles, was revised in 2000. The lowest age at which minors can be given criminal punishment dropped from 16 to 14. In principle, a minor who is at least 16 and has committed a serious crime now must be sent from a family court to a public prosecutors office.

If a criminal court decides that a minor defendant should be put on probation or committed to an institution, he or she will be sent back to a family court. If it judges that a minor who was under 18 when he or she committed a crime deserves a death sentence, it must give a life sentence instead. Rules for Criminal Procedure Law say that in a criminal trial of a minor, the trial should be carried out with care and the court must examine as much as possible the evidence considered by a family court.

Certainly, the youth tried at the Sendai court committed a heinous crime, but it should be examined whether the judges had enough time and material to sufficiently consider his family environment and his history in deciding whether he should be sent to a reform institution or given criminal punishment.

Since the possibility exists that any adult could serve as a lay judge, people should be given ample information about Japan’s capital punishment system, including how death row inmates are treated, the kinds of crimes or offenses that have sent minors to reform institutions, and how they are reforming themselves.