The Supreme Court’s No. 1 Petit Bench in a 3-1 decision on Feb. 20 upheld a high court ruling that sentenced a man to death for raping and strangling housewife Yayoi Motomura, 23, and murdering her 11-month-old daughter Yuka in Hikari, Yamaguchi Prefecture, in 1999. Juvenile Law prohibits sentencing to death persons who were younger than 18 at the time they committed their crime. The defendant, Takayuki Otsuki, was 18 years and a month old when he committed the double murder.

A danger exists that the top court’s decision could set a strong precedent for trials dealing with heinous crimes by minors. This should not be allowed to happen despite the gravity of such crimes because the possibility of rehabilitation is very high for juveniles.

In two earlier trials, the Yamaguchi District Court and the Hiroshima High Court gave Otsuki a life sentence on the grounds that he was only one month older than 18 at the time of the crimes and that there was a strong possibility that he could be rehabilitated. But the Supreme Court remanded the case to the Hiroshima High Court, saying that the defendant’s age is no longer a critical factor to avoid handing down a death sentence. In the retrial the high court sentenced Otsuki to death.

On Feb. 20, the nation’s top court turned down Otsuki’s appeal citing the seriousness of the crime and his responsibility, despite his being a minor when he committed the murders and the possibility that he could still be rehabilitated. The decision strengthens the trend of attaching more importance to the seriousness of a crime’s consequence and the feelings of the victim’s family in crimes committed by minors.

In 1983, the Supreme Court set down a standard that treated a death sentence as exceptional and stated that the death penalty can be allowed when it is the most just and logical choice. The standard stipulated several factors must be considered when handing out a death sentence, including the motivation behind the crime, the degree of cruelty, the seriousness of the crime’s consequence, the feelings of the victim’s family and the age of the criminal.

No one will argue that Otsuki’s crimes were not horrific. Still, the possibility that he could be rehabilitated should have been given more weight. The one dissenting justice pointed out that Otsuki’s mental and moral maturity were low for his age and stated that this should have been a mitigating factor in deciding his fate. He said the court needed to look more into the circumstances that contributed to his character and mental state. We agree, and hope that this case does not set a strong precedent.

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