• Kyodo

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Japan’s justice system might have sentenced some criminals to death when they should have received a life sentence, a group of lawyers said in a report Thursday.

“There must be several cases in which defendants were sentenced to death even when they deserved life imprisonment or more lenient punishments,” a research group of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations says in the report. “Such misjudgment should be considered an injustice and unfair, on the same level as false accusations.”

The study concludes that death sentences could have been meted out erroneously, given that court decisions have been inconsistent on these options, even in respect of crimes of a similarly violent nature.

There are no defining standards when it comes to sentencing a person to death or to life imprisonment; the decision is left to the discretion of the presiding judge.

“Under such circumstances, the government should suspend executions as it runs counter to justice and imposes unfair results on defendants,” the group said in the report, which was released at an annual human rights meeting of the federation that began the same day in the city of Miyazaki.

The group chose some 730 criminal cases that have taken place during the past 20 years. It compared the cases in which death sentences were finalized at the Supreme Court with those in which defendants were handed life imprisonment or more lenient sentences.

In some cases, prosecutors’ demands for capital punishment were rejected, resulting in life imprisonment sentences.

The report was based on data gathered from news sources. As such, it does not necessarily cover all cases during the period in question.

The research shows that during the period, five cases in which kidnappers had sought a ransom and had each later murdered one victim resulted in death sentences. However, eight similar cases resulted in life imprisonment terms.

Regarding cases in which several people were murdered, judges handed down different verdicts, with some defendants facing capital punishment, according to the research.

When courts rejected prosecutors’ demands for the death penalty, it was mainly because the crimes were not premeditated or there was some blame on the victims’ side, the research shows.

Moreover, the courts “focused on subjective aspects, such as the defendant’s unhappy upbringing and his or her prospects for rehabilitation,” the report notes, suggesting there are no concrete objective standards for assessing these cases.

The report cites five cases in which death sentences imposed by lower courts were commuted to life imprisonment terms at higher courts for reasons such as the possibility of rehabilitating the defendant, or the defendant’s mental problems and unhappy past.

On the other hand, the report cites five cases in which higher courts upgraded life imprisonment terms to capital punishment on the grounds that it was unlikely the defendants would be rehabilitated or that they played key roles in violent crimes. Defendants’ past criminal records were also cited.

Even in the 1980s, four inmates were taken off death row in Japan after being acquitted in retrials, indicating that miscarriages of justice are still possible.

In several violent cases, meanwhile, prosecutors had sought life imprisonment terms even though capital punishment appeared to be a more appropriate penalty in comparison with other cases, the report shows.

Based on these findings, the report concludes, “It is almost impossible to fix the boundary between capital punishment and life imprisonment, and the boundary must lie in the judge’s sense of values.”

The largest lawyers’ group in Japan proposed in November 2002 that the government suspend executions until public debate over capital punishment reaches a certain consensus because Japan’s death penalty system is riddled with problems, such as the secrecy that surrounds executions.

But the federation has never sought the termination of capital punishment.

A nonpartisan league of some 100 lawmakers opposed to the death penalty is also seeking the suspension of executions while planning to submit a bill to the Diet to replace the death penalty with life imprisonment without parole.

Under the bill, the Japan Parliamentary League Against the Death Penalty, headed by Shizuka Kamei, a former policy chief of the Liberal Democratic Party, will call for a four-year moratorium on executions while debate continues at an ad hoc commission to be set up in the Diet to discuss capital punishment.

Death row inmates can be detained in solitary confinement and their contact with the outside world severely restricted. They are only given about an hour’s notice of their execution and, as such, cannot see relatives beforehand or make other preparations.

The United Nations has repeatedly urged the Japanese government to address these concerns about the capital punishment system, while the Council of Europe is considering temporarily revoking Japan’s observer status unless it suspends executions.

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