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The Tokyo District Court last week sentenced a 34-year-old man to life imprisonment for slaying a 23-year-old woman, mutilating her body and then abandoning it in Tokyo in April 2008. The man admitted to the charge of forcing the woman, who lived two doors down, into his apartment with the aim of sexually assaulting her. He also admitted to stabbing her to death, mutilating her body with a saw and other tools, flushing parts down the toilet and dumping other pieces elsewhere.

The court said the man’s acts were chilling, damaged the victim’s dignity and were extremely despicable. But it said that a sentence of capital punishment was not warranted because the murder was not premeditated.

With the introduction of a lay-judge system in May in mind, the court completed the trial in a little more than a month — from Jan. 13 to Feb. 18 — by holding six intensive hearings. The prosecution made a visual presentation of the crime on a 65-inch screen that included scenes of the defendant re-enacting his mutilation of the victim on a mannequin plus photos of 172 body pieces and 49 bone fragments that were found in the sewer system and elsewhere. The images made some of the victim’s relatives cry and leave the courtroom.

Despite the prosecution’s effort to impress the cruelty of the crime upon the judges, the court acted cautiously. It postponed the ruling by eight days and chose to give weight to many precedents that avoided sentences of capital punishment in cases in which the defendants had no criminal records and only one person was killed — the same conditions applying to the crime in this trial. The ruling said that overemphasis on the postmortem mutilation and abandonment of the victim’s body should be avoided. It also said that the defendant did not sexually attack the victim and repented all of his actions.

It is understandable that the prosecution wanted to use the evidence available to prove the guilt of a defendant in an unambiguous manner. But it should seriously consider the possibility that relying too much on sensationalistic visual presentations of crimes in future trials could make it impossible for lay judges to make coolheaded judgments.

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