After a juvenile received a life sentence in 2000 for the murder and attempted rape of Yayoi Motomura, 23, and the murder of her 11-month-old daughter, Yuka, the killer wrote a letter to a friend that placed him at the center of Japan’s capital punishment debate.
Hiroshi Motomura, whose wife and child were murdered in Yamaguchi Prefecture
by a minor in 1999, speaks to reporters in Tokyo on April 18 after hearing a
session on the case at the Supreme Court.
His flippant attitude at the time and during his trial outraged Yayoi’s husband, Hiroshi, and prosecutors, who appealed the life sentence, demanding the death penalty.
But the appellate court upheld the Yamaguchi District Court’s sentence, and the case is now before the Supreme Court. The court took receipt of the defense statement Thursday in which lawyers claimed the defendant did not intend to kill, but was only trying to silence their screams and panicked.
The court is expected to rule on the lower court sentence in the next few months.
At issue is whether the death penalty should apply in the case of one young murderer. But people on both sides of the death penalty debate believe the future of capital punishment in Japan is at stake.
Strong public sentiment
The Supreme Court began hearing defense arguments in March — an unusual move for the highest court, which usually makes rulings based only on papers submitted by the two sides.
The decision to invite oral arguments fueled speculation that the Supreme Court was considering overturning the lower court decision and sending the case back to the lower court. If that happens, the high court might well reverse its earlier sentence and opt for capital punishment.
The defendant replaced his first attorney with Yoshihiro Yasuda, a well-known human rights lawyer and death penalty opponent. He also wrote to the victim’s husband in April.
Hiroshi Motomura said he has no interest in reading it. “He did not write to me once in the past seven years to apologize, explain or make sense of what happened,” said Motomura, who suspects the letter is only a defense tactic aimed at showing contrition. “But it does show he is finally ready to take this trial seriously.”
The possibility that someone could be hanged for a double-murder the accused committed as a minor has alarmed death penalty foes.
The public is increasingly sympathetic to victims and their families in such crimes, according to opinion polls by the Cabinet Office, which point to an 80 percent support rate for capital punishment.
“More victims of crime are speaking out, and the public is taking a harder line against juvenile criminals,” said Kenji Hirose, a former judge and professor of law at Rikkyo University in Tokyo.
“Sentences for taking a human life have, for the most part, been lighter in Japan than those overseas,” he said, noting among judges, it was a rule of thumb that a murderer should spend about 10 years in prison for each life taken.
When the Hiroshima High Court upheld the defendant’s life sentence in 2002, the court said there was a possibility the accused could learn to live a useful life.
The court also mentioned his troubled childhood, during which his mother committed suicide, as a reason for clemency.
It is still possible the defendant, now 25, may reform, said Koichi Kikuta, a law professor at Meiji University in Tokyo.
“I suspect the (Supreme) court is being influenced by the growing tendency among the public to support crime victims,” Kikuta said.
“The previous court decisions cited the possibility that the defendant could be rehabilitated. I think handing down a harsher penalty in response to public sentiment is unjust.”
Motomura, who has been vocal in his criticism of the killer, joined with other crime victims in an effort to expand their rights at a time when they were given little access to trials of the accused offenders.
In April 2005, a law to allow the victimized to play a greater role during trials took effect. And the government now grants them greater access to information on investigations and trials.
Death sentences can be handed down to people aged 18 and older, but the Juvenile Law states that life imprisonment should be meted out when sentencing someone who was under 20 when the crime was committed.
Since the end of the World War II, there have been eight exceptions made to this rule, where people who were under 20 at the time of their crimes have been sentenced to death.
They include the Aug. 1, 1995, hanging of Norio Nagayama, who was originally sentenced to life for murdering four people when he was 19. The Supreme Court in 1983 overturned that sentence and ruled he should be executed.
“The Nagayama case became the standard — if you’re a minor and kill four people, you could face death, but with fewer victims, you could avoid it,” Motomura said. “That is precisely why the perpetrator assumed he would not be put to death, but he is wrong.”
Those like Motomura who are pushing for harsher juvenile sentences argue they will deter crime.
“An 18-year-old should be aware of the consequences of killing another person,” said Yoshikazu Otsuka, a lawyer based in Urawa, Saitama Prefecture.
Capital punishment maintains order in society and, he figured, prevents lynching of perpetrators by victims’ families.
But attorney Yasuda disagrees: “Capital punishment is cruel, brutal and senseless. Will putting this man to death bring the victims back? No. Will crime go down if we put this man to death? No.”
But beyond the usual arguments, the case spotlights how much weight Japan gives to both victims and perpetrators.
Motomura visited Napoleon Beazley, a 30-year-old on death row in Texas in January 2002.
Beazley, a star student, was given a lethal injection four months later on May 28 for shooting a 63-year-old man in a carjacking at age 17.
Beazley told Motomura that he only realized the full weight of the suffering he caused the victim’s family, when he saw his mother collapse in tears when his sentence was handed down.
Motomura went away convinced that the death penalty was necessary to make people realize what they had done.
But Beazley’s conclusion differed from Motomura’s. His last words were a passionate plea to give death-row inmates a second chance.
“Give those men a chance to do what’s right. Give them a chance to undo their wrongs. A lot of them want to fix the mess they started, but don’t know how. The problem is not in that people aren’t willing to help them find out, but in the system telling them it won’t matter anyway,” he said. “No one wins tonight. No one gets closure. No one walks away victorious.”