Minors and the Death Penalty

Rehabilitation going by the wayside in death sentence for 4 minors.
(Mainichi Japan) March 11, 2011

The Supreme Court sentenced three men to death for killing four people in Osaka, Aichi and Gifu prefectures in 1994, when they were minors aged 18 and 19.

The focus of Japan's Juvenile Act is on rehabilitation and probation for juvenile offenders. Furthermore, it stipulates that no offender under the age of 18 can be sentenced to death, regardless of the crime. In other words, anyone aged 18 and over is subject to the death penalty.

In handing down the sentence, the presiding judge noted that the repercussions of the men's actions were serious. Considering the terror the victims must have felt, as well as the feelings of the bereaved families, the judge said, the death sentence was unavoidable even though the accused had been minors at the time of their crimes.

The decision of the Supreme Court in 1983 to sentence Norio Nagayama to death for the fatal shooting of four people has since become a guideline used in the courts for applying the death penalty. According to the ruling, the death penalty can be invoked only if it is deemed inevitable after comprehensive consideration of nine criteria -- including the nature of the crime, the cruelty of the ways in which the victims were killed, the number of victims, and the perpetrators' ages.

In a 2006 appeal hearing for the 1999 murder of a woman and her baby daughter in Hikari, Yamaguchi Prefecture, the Supreme Court rejected the Hiroshima High Court's life imprisonment sentence and sent the case back to the high court, citing insufficient reason for avoiding the death penalty. The Supreme Court accepted the appeal of prosecutors who had sought a death sentence, and said that the fact the offender had been a minor at the time of the crime was "merely one factor to be taken into consideration."

In the 2000s, the trend of meting out severe punishment became more pronounced, and the number of death sentences rose. The Supreme Court's decision on the Hikari murders indicated that crimes committed by minors were not immune to the changing times, and in a retrial in 2008, the Hiroshima High Court sentenced the defendant to death.

What effects will the latest Supreme Court decision have on district and high courts trying 18- and 19-year-olds who have committed serious crimes?

In abiding by the spirit of the law, we must be extremely careful about the way we determine the possibility of offenders' rehabilitation -- including the environment in which they were brought up -- among cases trying minors more so than we would be toward cases in which the defendants are adults.

Last November, a minor accused of killing two and injuring one -- when he was 18, less than a year earlier -- was sentenced to death by a group of professional and lay judges at the Sendai District Court. A lay judge who spoke at a press conference following the ruling said that the sentence would continue to weigh heavily on their minds for the rest of their lives.

When the three offenders in the latest case were handed the death sentence, some media outlets began to refer to the men by their real names. The Mainichi, however, in consideration of the view that the men's rehabilitation -- including sincere soul searching -- should continue to take place, has maintained their anonymity. We will continue to make case-by-case decisions on such matters.

While the handing down of severe penalties continues to endure, it is also true that there is increasing international criticism against the death penalty. Full-fledged deliberation on criminal punishment needs to be carried out in the Diet.