On Jan. 12, 2011, 24-year-old American Rufus J. Ramsey III, a civilian U.S. Department of Defense employee working for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, lost control of his car after overtaking another vehicle, crossed into the oncoming lane on a national highway in Okinawa City and collided head-on with a minicar, killing the 19-year-old driver, Koki Yogi.

Since Ramsey was driving home from work, the U.S. armed forces certified that he was on duty. In accordance with the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, which stipulates that the United States holds the primary right to try U.S. service members and civilian employees who have committed crimes or caused accidents while on duty, the prosecutors gave up on trying to indict Ramsey.

At the request of the victim’s family, the Naha Prosecution Inquest Committee, a citizens’ panel, discussed the case and voted in favor of indicting Ramsey. While the prosecutors were carrying out a second investigation on the basis of the vote, Japan and the United States reached agreement Nov. 24 to improve the operation of SOFA in connection with crimes and accidents involving on-duty U.S. DOD civilian employees. On the strength of the new agreement, the prosecutors the next day indicted Ramsey on the charge of vehicular manslaughter.

The new agreement falls short of revising SOFA and does not cover on-duty U.S. service members who have committed crimes or caused accidents. It also reconfirms that the U.S. still holds the primary right to try American civilian armed forces workers who have committed crimes or caused accidents while on duty.

But it is a step forward. Under the new agreement, if the U.S. declines to prosecute an American civilian DOD employee involved in a crime or accident, Japan has 30 days to request permission to try the case. The U.S. is supposed to give favorable consideration to such requests involving cases in which the victims suffered injuries that were fatal or caused permanent disabilities.

The Japanese government should not use the new agreement as a means of softening Okinawan opposition to the current relocation plan to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma further north from Ginowan to Henoko. However, it should continue efforts to revise SOFA to expand Japan’s jurisdiction over crimes committed by U.S. service members.

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