The Supreme Court on Tuesday threw out a life sentence for a 25-year-old man convicted of the 1999 murders of a woman and her infant daughter, and ordered the Hiroshima High Court to rehear the case with an eye to sentencing the killer to hang.

The top court ruled that just because the killer was a juvenile when he murdered Yayoi Motomura, 23, and her 11-month-old daughter in Hikari, Yamaguchi Prefecture, was not necessarily sufficient cause to spare his life.

This is the third time since records started being kept in 1966 that the Supreme Court has rejected a lower court’s life sentence for a defendant whom prosecutors wanted executed and sent the case back to the lower court.

The Hiroshima High Court had upheld the Yamaguchi District Court’s life sentence handed down in 2000 for the man, who cannot be named as he was a juvenile at the time of the crime.

“While the fact that the defendant was 18 at the time of the murders is a factor that should be considered when deciding whether to hand down the death penalty, it is not a decisive reason for not giving a death sentence,” presiding Justice Toyozo Ueda said. “On the contrary, it should be only one factor and be measured against the criminality, motives, means, gravity of the crime, and the feelings of the survivors.”

Legal experts said the decision is an indication that the judicial balance is tipping toward victims.

“Crime victims are speaking out, and the courts are well aware that the public is taking a harder line against juvenile criminals,” said Kenji Hirose, a former judge who now teaches law at Rikkyo University in Tokyo.

Yayoi Motomura’s husband, Hiroshi, has been very public in his demand for the death penalty and lobbied both times to get prosecutors to appeal the life sentence, saying he saw little remorse in the man.

“I applaud the fact that the Supreme Court said being a juvenile at the time of the crime is not a good enough reason to avoid the death penalty,” Motomura told reporters.

However, he said he was disappointed the top court itself did not hand down the death penalty.

“It’s been seven years” since the murders, he said. “There’s no telling how many more years it’s going to take” before the case is finalized.

“We most fear that the defendant may use every tactic to avoid the death penalty, including prolonging the trial,” he said, citing the case of Shoko Asahara, the founder of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, who has been on trial since April 1996.

Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, has been convicted and faces the death penalty for multiple murders and for masterminding the March 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.

In Tuesday’s ruling, the Supreme Court said the courts should keep in mind that the defendant had not planned to murder his two victims.

However, that fact in itself is not enough to warrant a reprieve, the court said, because the defendant planned to rape his victim, and “his coldblooded murders arose from a desire to keep that crime hidden.”

As for the high court’s acknowledgment that the defendant suffered from a troubled childhood, with his mother committing suicide when he was in junior high school, the Supreme Court said, “While we agree that there were unfortunate and unstable elements as he grew up, he received a high school education, and we cannot say that his upbringing was especially bad.”

On April 14, 1999, the killer, then aged 18 years and 30 days, entered Motomura’s home pretending to be a plumber. He grabbed the woman from behind and strangled her when she screamed and fought back.

He then tied her wrists and covered her nose and mouth with duct tape before raping her, according to court rulings. When the toddler Yuka continued crying over her mother’s body, the defendant threw the child onto the ground and strangled her with a piece of string.

The defense argued that the forensic evidence does not match the prosecutors’ version of how the murders took place, and that there were no marks of strangulation on the child’s body. The Supreme Court rejected the defense’s argument.

“This ruling is unjust, and it aggressively upholds the use of the death penalty,” defense attorney Yoshihiro Yasuda said later in a statement. Yasuda is a vocal opponent of capital punishment.

The ruling departs from the precedent set for the death penalty by the Supreme Court in the case of Norio Nagayama, who was sentenced to hang in 1983 for killing four people when he was 19. Since that case, the number of victims was viewed as the determining factor in whether to impose the death penalty.

“If the murderer gets a life sentence this time, it would set the precedent that if you are a minor, you can avoid capital punishment even if you kill two people,” the victim’s husband said. “That’s why I am fighting . . . to prevent this country from setting such a standard.”

Death sentences can be handed down to people aged 18 or older under the Penal Code, but the Juvenile Law states that life imprisonment should be the sentence if the perpetrator was under 20 when the crime was committed.

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