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There is a move to review the statute of limitations on serious criminal cases. A Justice Ministry panel, which has made public an interim report on its study, hopes to present a proposal by August after hearing opinions from the National Police Agency, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations and other organizations concerned.

Behind the move is the trend of strengthening the rights of crime victims and their families. In 2005, the basic law for crime victims went into effect, calling for central and local government support of such people. In 2008, these people started taking part in criminal proceedings to express their views on the prosecution’s action, including the questioning of suspects and witnesses.

On April 28, the Supreme Court upheld a high court ruling that ordered a man who surrendered to police in August 2004 for the August 1978 murder of a female primary school teacher to pay some ¥42 million in compensation to bereaved family members. Although the statute of limitations on both the crime and the right to sue for compensation had expired, the top court justified its ruling on the grounds that the man had hid the woman’s body for a long time during which the family did not know of her fate.

The panel’s interim report listed four ideas: abolishing the system of the statute of limitations; prolonging the statute of limitations; suspending the statute of limitations when an unidentified suspect is indicted on the basis of DNA-related information; and allowing a judge to suspend the statute of limitations at the request of a public prosecutor.

The system should be reviewed carefully. The more time passes, the more likely it is that evidence is dispersed, and it becomes extremely difficult for suspects and their lawyers to ascertain facts and establish alibis, thus increasing the possibility of false charges. How to maintain long-term investigation teams is another problem.

We should remember that, in 2005, the statute of limitations on crimes deserving a death sentence was lengthened from 15 years to 25 years, and on crimes deserving life imprisonment, it was prolonged from 10 years to 15 years.

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