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Author asks Japanese courts, ‘Where is your mind?’


Sensational crimes are defined by the media since sensations fuel the media engine. Murder has the greatest potential for sensationalism, but some murders attract more attention than others. Through a certain confluence of motive, money, and methodology some hog headlines for weeks while others never make it past the police blotter.

Once a crime becomes a sensation it usually remains somewhere on the media’s radar until a verdict is reached, which is why the so-called “lesser panda-cap case” rates special attention.

On April 30, 2001, a large man wearing a cap with the face of lesser panda on it dragged a 19-year-old woman into a side street in the Asakusa district of Tokyo and stabbed her to death as she screamed for help. The man escaped and the media went over the case in detail, describing it as a deviant sex crime while thousands of citizens bombarded the police with information of possible sightings of the suspect. Eventually, he was caught and the story immediately died.

In a book review that appeared in the Asahi Shimbun this past May, the reviewer asks: Why did the “fiercely competitive” coverage of the lesser-panda case suddenly stop? It’s because the suspect was found to be autistic, he writes, and in such cases the media retreats in an effort to safeguard the “human rights” of the suspect.

This implies that the media doesn’t want to be thought of as being discriminatory, or that it doesn’t want to inflame discrimination among the public, who might draw the conclusion that all autistics are potential killers.

Consequently, people may believe that the case was buried in “consideration” of the suspect, but Mikio Sato, the author of “Jiheisho Saiban (The Autism Trial),” the book being reviewed, indicates something very different.

For 20 years Sato taught the mentally and physically disabled before becoming a writer. He understands the situation surrounding autism in Japan, and his explanation of the case is from the standpoint of the autistic man, who was convicted last November and sentenced to life in prison because, according to the judge, he is capable of committing a similar crime again.

In his verdict, the judge admitted that the suspect was “mentally retarded” to some degree, but accepted the prosecutor’s claim that he was “responsible” enough to receive punishment for what he had done.

Sato says that the incident cannot be analyzed, and the killer’s “responsibility” and “atonement” cannot be understood, unless one first understands his “disability.”

The distinguishing characteristic of autism is that the affected person is basically incapable of seeing himself objectively and that he cannot identify with others’ feelings. For this reason, autistic people are believed to be incapable of deception.

When the police interrogated the man, he admitted to every suggestion they made, and they got a written statement, which may not be worthless, but as Sato points out any confession written by an autistic person must be “translated” accordingly in a criminal procedure.

No such translation was provided, and the prosecutor, determined to extract the maximum sentence, convinced the judge to look upon the accused as a monster. When questioned in court about the statement he wrote for the police, the accused repeatedly stated that he didn’t understand the question or that he didn’t remember what he wrote. The judge believed that these answers constituted a “defensive strategy” that was meant to mislead the court. He said he thought the accused was lying.

If the man’s autism had been established in the beginning, lying would not have been an issue in the trial, but it wasn’t. Autism, as well as other mental disabilities, has never been recognized as a factor in criminal proceedings in Japan. “I wanted to think that the judge’s decision was exceptional because of the brutality of the crime,” Sato writes, “but that would be too optimistic.”

That’s because Sato knows how the mentally disabled are treated.

Using statistics compiled by Joji Yamamoto, a former Diet politician and prison inmate who is now an advocate for convicts with mental disabilities, Sato says that each year 25,000 people enter the prison system. Of these, about a thousand have IQs of less than 49 (70 and below is considered mentally disabled) and about another thousand are “incapable of being measured.”

More significantly, 80 percent of the crimes these people commit are either “fraud” or “larceny.” Fraud, in these cases, usually means going into a restaurant, ordering a meal, and then not paying for it. As for larceny, it normally means picking something up that didn’t belong to you and walking away with it.

The lesser-panda murderer had been imprisoned previously for these sorts of crimes.

Though the mentally disabled are eligible for welfare, it can only be received by those who live with their families or in institutions. The lesser-panda killer did not acknowledge his disability and avoided any related assistance. Because his family was poor, he himself was mostly indigent. He had somehow made his way to Tokyo from Hokkaido, taking odd jobs when he could.

No one denies the man’s guilt, but what’s disturbing about the case is that the court, looking at the sensational nature of the crime and not at the circumstances of the accused, accepted the prosecutor’s case completely and rejected the defense’s challenge to the prosecution’s evidence out of hand.

The lawyers for the accused told Sato they wanted this to be a landmark case that would expose how the mentally disabled are mistreated by the criminal-justice system. That’s something the media could have done, but in this case they didn’t care. Like the judge and the prosecutor, they preferred a neat, comforting ending to a horror story. The mentally disabled just make their jobs easier.