A trucker was convicted Tuesday of killing an 8-year-old boy in a 1997 traffic accident and handed a suspended sentence in a case that prosecutors initially dropped for “a lack of witnesses” and later reopened under public pressure.
The Tokyo District Court sentenced Shoichi Mitamura, 35, to two years in prison suspended for four years for professional negligence resulting in the death of Shun Katayama.
The case raised public awareness of the rights of crime victims and their families to be kept informed by investigative and judicial authorities.
According to the court, Mitamura’s truck ran over the boy at a pedestrian crossing on Nov. 28, 1997, in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward. Mitamura said he was talking on a radio at the time and didn’t notice hitting the boy.
In handing down the ruling, Judge Hiromichi Inoue said the defendant had a responsibility to pay more attention than usual when approaching a pedestrian crossing.
After the ruling, the boy’s father, Tadaari Katayama, 43, expressed regret that it took 21/2 years for the case to conclude. He called on investigative and trial procedures to be more considerate of crime victims and their families.
While grateful for the ruling, Shun’s mother, Akiyo, 39, said nothing can bring an end to her own struggle as a mother who lost a son. “I don’t want anybody to experience my agony,” she said.
Mitamura was initially arrested a few hours after the accident for negligence and hit-and-run in violation of the Road Traffic Control Law. But prosecutors dropped the case after detaining him 10 days, due to a lack of eye-witnesses.
The boy’s parents criticized prosecutors as indifferent and launched a campaign to seek legal action to punish Mitamura.
In 1998, the parents asked a committee for the inquest of prosecution to review the case. The committee is an independent body that reviews prosecutors’ decisions, consisting of 11 adults randomly selected from the public.
They also asked the Tokyo High Public Prosecutor’s Office to reopen the investigation. The high prosecutors ordered the district prosecutors to reopen the case later that year with a new witness, who surfaced amid the parents’ campaigning.
The witness claimed the truck, which had stopped in the middle of the pedestrian crossing due to heavy traffic, started moving before the light turned green and struck the boy. According to the court, the boy was run over by the truck’s left wheels.
The district prosecutors reopened the case in November 1998, a year after the accident, and indicted Mitamura for professional negligence. They decided not to pursue the hit-and-run charge due to the driver’s claim that he was not aware of hitting the boy.
The district prosecutors’ office admitted that it erred during the initial investigation and pledged more consideration to the feelings of victims and their families in future investigations.
During the Katayamas’ widely publicized campaign, the rights of crime victims and information disclosure by investigative and judicial authorities drastically improved.
In July, the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office decided to inform crime victims or their next of kin of the outcome of their cases.
Although prosecutors are not banned from explaining investigative procedures to the families of crime victims, they usually refrain to protect the privacy of the accused, legal experts said.
Earlier this month, the Diet passed legislation to protect the rights of crime victims and their families, including a law to guarantee their right to testify in court.
After Tuesday’s ruling, Tadaari Katayama said he hopes his son’s death will be a turning point for investigative and judicial authorities to disclose information and secure the rights of crime victims.
Also, in a rare move, the Tokyo District Court provided the Katayama family with a gist of the ruling immediately after the session.
Ruling summaries had previously been distributed by courts only to reporters to expedite speedy and accurate reporting.
With the summary in hand, Katayama said it is absolutely necessary for victims and their families to understand if the ruling is appropriate.
The summaries are unofficial documents issued only for media convenience. It is unlikely that courts will unconditionally disclose such documents to victims’ families, experts say.
Mutsumi Sato, a lawyer for the Katayama family in a pending damages suit against Mitamura, said the whole system should be changed to provide official court records to crime victims and their families during the trial process.
Currently, revealing official court records on criminal cases is prohibited before a case is concluded, to protect the privacy of defendants.