Thursday, February 19, 2009

JAPAN: Death penalty won't bring victims back to life

The Osaka building where the woman's mother-in-law was murdered in 1988. (Mainichi)

With Japan's citizen judge system set to begin in May, there are increasing fears over the participation of ordinary citizens in the trials of murder and other serious criminal cases as they may be forced to face situations in which defendants are given the death penalty.

Japan and the U.S. are two of the few developed countries that still uphold the death penalty. How do victims' families and the families of defendants who have been sentenced to death deal with the loss of loved ones?

A 40-year-old woman whose doting mother-in-law fell victim to a murder-robbery once took the stand as a witness at a murder trial at the Nagoya District Court in November 2000. The defendant was her younger brother. "At first, I couldn't forgive him," she began.

Their father was never around, and their mother left home when the younger brother was 13 years old. The five brothers and sisters who were left on their own in Osaka never had enough to eat. The woman quietly spoke of their life in shambles. But one's upbringing doesn't justify murder. "I just feel so sorry for the victims." She often appears at a loss for words as she tries to relay her experiences.

"If possible, I'd like my younger brother to have another chance at life," she'd said when her brother's lawyer asked how she felt at the trial. "I just don't want any more people to die, even if they're guilty."
The Osaka building where the woman's younger brother is accused of murdering a man in 1994. (Mainichi)
The Osaka building where the woman's younger brother is accused of murdering a man in 1994. (Mainichi)

The murder took place on Sept. 28, 1994, in a bustling section of Minami, Osaka. Four youths dragged 26-year-old Masahide Hayashi into a room of a multi-tenant building and brutally murdered him. The youths subsequently went on to take the lives of three people in 10 days.

The murders were characterized as the result of the group's repeated acts of extortion going unchecked, and in October 2005, the Nagoya District Court delivered the death sentence to three of them who were 18- or 19-year-olds at the time of the crime. The woman's younger brother was one of them. All three defendants have denied the intention to kill and have appealed the sentence; there is a possibility that the Supreme Court will hand down a decision sometime this year.

The rooms on the fourth floor of the building in Minami are labeled with letters instead of numbers, as if attempting to obscure what happened 15 years ago.

The woman's mother-in-law, who was 45 years old at the time, was killed in May 1988, in a building five kilometers to the north of the one in Minami. The first floor where her mother-in-law's pub used to be is shuttered, and few people living in the neighborhood now know of the murder.

"It was because of my husband that I said in court that I didn't want anyone else to die," says the woman, who currently lives in the Kansai region.

At 18, she married a man four years her senior who came from a family of four boys. "She's my first daughter," the newlywed woman's mother-in-law bragged to people around her. Three months before the murder, the woman gave birth to a girl, and her mother-in-law had looked joyous as she held her first grandchild. When the mother-in-law was found murdered, however, her mouth was twisted and her eyes were open. From the shock of the death, the woman stopped menstruating for seven months.

The perpetrator was a 39-year-old former member of the Self-Defense Forces. He had committed the crime for want of money to lavish on women, and stole 12,000 yen from the scene of the murder.

Immediately after the incident, she felt she wanted to kill the murderer, the woman recalls, and she still can't forgive him. But the words uttered by her husband when he returned from taking the stand as the prosecution's witness at his mother's murder trial in Osaka have stayed with her to this day. He gently recounted what he'd said when he was asked what sentence he wished to see handed down to the defendant: "Giving him the death penalty won't bring my mother back." On March 1989, the Osaka District Court sentenced the defendant to an indefinite prison term, which he served.

A devoted son, the woman's husband had driven an hour everyday to take his mother to work. She came to understand that he did not wish for another death precisely because he knew how painful it was to lose a loved one. Still, she will never forget the eyes of the victims' families in her brother's murder trial boring holes in her back as she pleaded for a compassionate sentence.

In November 2005, soon after her brother's death sentence was handed down, the woman stocked up on clothes and delivered them to her brother at a Nagoya detention center. On her visit with her brother, whom she only knew as kind and quick to cry, tears prevented them from saying anything.

She hasn't been to see him since. "Considering how the victims' families must feel, my brother doesn't deserve to be treated gently," she said, her shoulders trembling. The color of her brother's skin, pale from his time in detention, is burned into her memory. (This is the first part of a series on capital punishment)

For the original Japanese story, click

(Mainichi Japan) February 18, 2009

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