FUKUOKA (Kyodo) The Fukuoka High Court sentenced a former city employee to 20 years in prison Friday for causing the deaths of three children in a 2006 hit-and-run crash while driving under the influence of alcohol, overturning a 7 1/2-year sentence given by a lower court.

The high court said Futoshi Imabayashi, 24, had drunk a substantial amount of alcohol and should face the charge of dangerous driving, which is substantially more serious than the charge of professional negligence resulting in death and injury applied by the Fukuoka District Court in January last year.

“The lower court determination that attributed the cause of the accident to inattentive driving is wrong,” presiding Judge Hiroo Suyama said in his ruling.

He also said “the influence of alcohol” must have been the only reason for the defendant’s failure to notice the car ahead of him, which a person would “certainly have noticed if driving normally.”

Imabayashi’s vehicle slammed into the car, causing it to plunge 14 meters off a bridge into Hakata Bay in the city of Fukuoka in August 2006, leading to the deaths of the three children, aged 4, 3 and 1. His vehicle then traveled another 300 meters farther.

The high-profile accident helped spur stricter penalties against drunken driving.

Responding to the high court’s verdict, the 32-year-old mother of the three deceased children, Kaori Ogami, said “I’m overwhelmed.”

The 36-year-old father of the children, Akio, added, “The presiding judge has answered our wishes.”

At a news conference after the ruling, the couple said they have suffered terribly in the two years and nine months since the accident.

“A proper ruling has been handed out to suit the heinousness (of the accident),” the mother said.

“We’d like to spend a quiet time today, only with family members,” she added.

While Imabayashi’s counsel argued that the victim’s sudden braking and inattentive driving caused the accident, prosecutors demanded a 25-year prison term on combined counts of dangerous driving under the Penal Code and involvement in a hit-and-run case under the road traffic law.

Dangerous driving is applied when a court recognized that a motorist found it difficult to drive normally because of being under the influence of alcohol.

The district court denied Imabayashi was heavily intoxicated at the time, giving him the maximum penalty for the combined charges of professional negligence resulting in death and injury.

Imabayashi, after drinking beer and other alcohol, was driving at a speed of 100 kph when his car slammed into the vehicle with Akio at the wheel on Aug. 25, 2006, sending the family of five into the bay. The parents escaped and managed to pull free their 3-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter. But the two children died later despite medical aid given by rescuers. The 4-year-old son did not make it out of the vehicle.

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