A young couple who starved their 3-year-old daughter to death in December 2000 were found guilty of murder Wednesday by the Nagoya District Court and sentenced to seven years in prison.
The court also laid partial blame on public authorities who were aware of problems surrounding the victim.
The court, in a rare move in which it treated the couple’s neglect as tantamount to murder, said Chiaki Tanigawa and his wife Mariko, both 23, were frustrated because their daughter Iori refused to obey them.
They enclosed her in a cardboard box in their home in the town of Taketoyo, Aichi Prefecture, from around mid-November that year and fed her only sparingly, despite knowing the child was losing weight and might die if not treated, the court said.
The girl died of starvation on Dec. 10. She had been reduced to skin and bones and weighed 5 kg, about a third that of an average 3-year-old.
“The crime was extremely cruel and malicious,” Judge Yoji Ishiyama said, noting the couple were fully aware their daughter might die but did not care and did nothing out of fear that they would be blamed for her condition.
“There is no indication that the defendants actively tried to prevent the girl from starving to death,” he said.
The judge rejected the couple’s argument that they should have been charged with abandoning their responsibilities as guardians of a child, resulting in death. Prosecutors had demanded prison terms of 12 years.
The pair were arrested on an initial charge of abandoning their responsibilities as guardians, but the Nagoya District Public Prosecutor’s Office then indicted them for murder.
During the trial, prosecutors said the parents were “consciously negligent,” a situation in which the perpetrators of a crime are aware of the consequences of their actions but feel the consequences are unavoidable and do not act to forestall them. While this differs from willful intent, conscious negligence is also subject to criminal charges.
“When we think of the pain and sorrow of the victim, there are no words to describe her pitiable state,” the judge said.
The couple’s lawyers argued for a suspended sentence, saying they were unable to obtain child-rearing support and counseling from those around them, and lost their ability to remedy the situation due to their isolation.
The judge acknowledged that insufficient communication among various public entities that were aware of the girl’s plight effectively contributed to her death, but added that “this does not lessen the parents’ responsibility,” because they lied to welfare officials and relatives regarding the child’s state.
In August 1999, the local health center was informed that Iori was possibly the victim of abuse. Center staffers confirmed the child was thin and showed little expression, so they contacted child welfare authorities.
A year later, a physician who saw the child when she was suffering a loss of appetite also suspected abuse. However, none of them deemed the situation serious enough to constitute an emergency.
The couple had not bathed the child or changed her clothes in the two weeks before her death, and only opened the lid of the box and handed her milk and bread sticks when they felt like it, the court said.
Although the defendants claimed everyone in the household was on a reduced diet due to a lack of finances, the court ruled that the parents lived a normal life and blocked Iori’s existence out of their everyday affairs.
The couple have a 3-year-old son and a daughter who was born in July last year. The two are currently living in a child welfare home.