OSAKA – A high court scrapped on Monday a lower court ruling that had sentenced a man to death for killing five people on Awaji Island in 2015, sentencing him instead to life in prison after reviewing his mental state at the time.
The Osaka High Court reduced the sentence for Tatsuhiko Hirano, 45, deeming him to have been in a state of diminished capacity due to a delusional disorder when he attacked his neighbors on the island with a knife.
The ruling is the seventh in which professional judges in a high court have overturned a death sentence by lay judges in a lower court since Japan introduced its lay judge system, which involves regular citizens making judgments on serious criminal cases, in 2009.
Presiding Judge Hiroaki Murayama said Hirano’s motive “could only be explained by his delusions” and recognized that his illness “had a significant influence” on the attack.
“His ability to stop himself from carrying out the attack had been significantly diminished,” Murayama said.
A Kobe District Court ruling in March 2017 recognized that Hirano suffered a mental illness as the result of taking psychotropic drugs extensively, but said the illness did not influence his actions and sentenced him to death, prompting the defense to file an appeal.
At the high court, the defense said Hirano was mentally incompetent or in a state of diminished capacity based on fresh psychiatric analysis conducted during the high court trial.
Hirano had argued during the lower court trial that the case was a “false accusation plotted by ‘operatives’ who destroyed my brain and forced me to commit the murders.”
At the lower court, the prosecutors — who had demanded capital punishment — highlighted the fact that “he took the lives of five people who had done nothing wrong.”
Pointing to the brutality of the case and the numerous stab wounds on the victims, they said the influence of the psychotropic drug the defendant had long been using was “limited.”
In the high court trial, prosecutors said Hirano had understood what he did because he told his mother after the attack he would not see her anymore as he would face trial.
Hirano fatally stabbed five neighbors with a knife in two separate homes in Sumoto, Hyogo Prefecture, on March 9, 2015. The victims were three women and two men aged between 59 and 84.
The accused had been committed to hospital in 2005 and 2010, after being judged by local authorities to be a danger to the public due to mental illness.
Following a number of cases in which high courts have scrapped death sentences issued by district courts, crime victims’ families have criticized professional judges’ decisions as “not matching the common sense of ordinary people,” despite the lay judge system having been designed to address such concerns.
So far, life sentences have been finalized in five such cases, while prosecutors gave up appealing the sentence in another case.
A Supreme Court report last May showed that more than 10 percent of rulings handed down by lay judges had been overturned by high courts.
Still, a Kyodo News survey last year showed that 92 percent of citizen judges polled view the lay judge system as having helped rulings reflect the sensibilities of ordinary people.