The government clinched a much-needed symbolic victory in its prosecution of Carlos Ghosn with the successful extradition of two Americans accused of helping the ex-chairman of Nissan Motor Co. escape trial over a year ago.
Michael Taylor, 60, and Peter Taylor landed at Narita International Airport on Tuesday afternoon. The father-son duo are believed to have aided Ghosn by hiding him in a case for audio equipment and loading it onto a private jet in December 2019, helping him illegally leave Japan. The former auto executive, who has denied charges of financial misconduct levied by prosecutors, made his way to Beirut, where he currently resides.
Ghosn’s dramatic escape was an embarrassing loss of face for Japan’s justice system, which enjoys a 99% conviction rate. By bringing the Taylors to Japan to investigate and try them in court, prosecutors will attempt to reclaim some of the legal high ground, essentially making them stand-ins for Ghosn. If convicted, they face a maximum of three years in prison on charges of harboring or enabling the escape of a criminal.
"This is a big case with a lot of attention and it’s a big win for prosecutors,” says William Cleary, an expert witness in the Taylors’ case and a professor at Hiroshima Shudo University who specializes in Japanese criminal law. "What they really want is more information about what happened — how Ghosn escaped,” especially if Japanese nationals were involved somewhere along the way, he said.
The extradition itself is unusual. Only 31 fugitives were extradited to Japan from 2000 to 2018, about one to two people per year, according to a recent white paper from the Justice Ministry. That compares with 350 to 600 extraditions to the United States each year.
The pair had mounted an unsuccessful, expensive lobbying campaign to press their case with U.S. officials and several last-ditch attempts to prevent their transfer to Japan. Japan only has bilateral extradition treaties with the U.S. and South Korea.
The relatively light charges made the handover of the Taylors even more of a surprise, according to former prosecutor Nobuo Gohara, who has criticized the nation's justice system and written a book on the Ghosn saga.
"Compared to cases in the past where extradition was allowed, this stands out; it’s not a story that involves something like murder,” Gohara said. Because they lost their chance to try Ghosn, prosecutors are now "avidly seeking punishment,” the attorney said.
The U.S. State Department formally authorized Japan’s extradition request in October, a political decision that may have played out differently under a different administration, according to Gohara. Rejecting the request would have strained relations between the U.S. and Japan as the U.S. was stressing the importance of showing a united front against China.
The former Green Beret and his 28-year-old son have never denied that they were involved in Ghosn’s escape, but Cleary and the Taylors’ lawyers had argued that what the pair did was help an individual "jump bail,” which they argue isn’t a crime in Japan. The Taylors have argued that they will be interrogated without a lawyer in Japan, causing mental and physical harm.
The Taylors will be held at the Kosuge detention facility in Tokyo, the same one where Ghosn was held. The Taylors can be interrogated without a lawyer present, as is customary in Japan, for as long as 23 days. That stay can be extended if the two receive additional charges or expedited if they cooperate with prosecutors, Cleary said.
Not only will the father-son duo serve as a proxy for Ghosn, their prosecution may also relieve some of the pressure on Greg Kelly, the former Nissan director who was arrested on the same day as his boss and is currently standing trial in Tokyo for allegedly helping to understate Ghosn’s compensation by tens of millions of dollars. He pleaded not guilty on the first day of trial in September.
Justice Ministry officials have said Kelly will get a fair trial and that Japan’s jurisprudence is on par with other industrialized nations. The legal system will be "tough but fair” with the Taylors, said Cleary, adding that he doesn’t think the pair will get the maximum sentence.
"If you’re taking into account optics and politics, the extradition gives the court — and behind the court, the government — the ability to go easier on Greg Kelly than they would otherwise,” said Tokyo-based lawyer and professor Stephen Givens.
Kelly’s lawyers, family and a few U.S. politicians have questioned his ability to get a fair trial without Ghosn’s testimony and criticized the slow pace of judicial proceedings in Japan. Kelly’s trial has already been delayed multiple times and is scheduled to last through the fall.
For the Taylors, regardless of whether they contest their charges or plead guilty, they will also be headed into what will likely be a lengthy trial in Tokyo, according to Cleary. In the end, "the common denominator is that they both helped Ghosn,” Givens said. "Ghosn is gone, and they’re left here holding the bag.”
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