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The Aomori District Court on Wednesday sentenced a former taxi driver to death for setting fire to a branch office of major consumer credit firm Takefuji Corp. and killing five employees during an attempted robbery.

Although he pleaded guilty to the charges, Mitsuhiro Kobayashi, 44, denied he intended to murder the five when he set fire to the branch in Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture. Four other staff members suffered serious burns.

But prosecutors, who had demanded the death penalty, argued that Kobayashi had a firm intent to kill as he was aware that igniting the gasoline he had poured on the floor could endanger or kill employees.

Defense lawyers for Kobayashi have appealed the ruling.

In the trial, which opened June 6, the prosecutors had accused Kobayashi of breaking into the Hirosaki branch, on the third floor of an office building, around 10:50 a.m. on May 8, 2001, pouring gasoline on the floor and demanding money.

After the branch manager refused, Kobayashi lit the gasoline and fled, according to the indictment.

The indictment also said Kobayashi decided to carry out the attack because he could not repay debts to several consumer credit companies after becoming addicted to betting on bicycle races.

In handing down the ruling, presiding Judge Akiyoshi Yamauchi noted that Kobayashi had previously worked at a gas station and was aware of the dangers posed by gasoline.

He also dismissed claims that Kobayashi had no intent to kill, saying that his torching of the premises with no thought for the welfare of those inside could be taken as a sign of murderous intent.

He added that Kobayashi’s motive, which was to prevent a consumer finance company from repossessing his car, could not be taken into consideration. The company had been demanding he pay 600,000 yen.

Consequently, the death penalty was the only possible sentence, he said, adding that Kobayashi continued to bet on bicycle races even after the incident.

After Kobayashi was sentenced, Ryoichi Sasamori, 46, whose wife Yoko, 46, died in the blaze, said that with the ruling he would now like to come to terms with his wife’s death.

But he also said, “I don’t know what kind of meaning the ruling will hold (for me). As time passes, the feelings of sadness just grow stronger.”

Terukazu Sotokawa, 36, whose sister Takako Fukui, 30, was also among the victims, said the fact that Kobayashi has appealed the ruling means he has absolutely no sense of guilt.

Masamichi Mikami, head of the defense team, said Kobayashi has potential to be reformed, and that his client had asked them to file an appeal.

Mikami said Kobayashi did not realize the gravity of his crime at the time of his arrest but does so now and prays for the souls of those who perished in the blaze.

Kobayashi was arrested March 4, 2002, on suspicion of robbery and murder, attempted robbery and murder, and arson.

Relatives of the victims and survivors of the fire appeared in court Aug. 23 to drum up support for the death penalty.

Branch head gets life

NAGANO (Kyodo) The Nagano District Court on Wednesday sentenced a former branch head of consumer credit firm Takefuji Corp. to life in prison for killing another branch chief and robbing the office of 4.2 million yen in 2001.

Handing down the life sentence to Masahiro Kinoshita, 30, presiding Judge Masayoshi Aoki said Kinoshita’s act was “well planned” and the way he killed the victim — Hideyuki Komatsu, 20 — was “tenacious and cruel.”

According to the ruling, Kinoshita broke into the branch in central Nagano city on Dec. 28, 2001, repeatedly stabbing Komatsu with a fish knife. He then took 4.2 million yen from the ATM.

According to the ruling, Kinoshita targeted Takefuji’s branch in central Nagano city because he was familiar with the firm’s security procedures.

On the night of Dec. 28, 2001, Kinoshita broke into the office and repeatedly stabbed Komatsu in the back and stomach with a fish knife. He then took 4.2 million yen from the automated teller machine at the office.

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