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Analysis: Top court should explain death penalty for man who killed 2 as a minor

Lawyer Hiroyuki Kusaba, center, and others are seen at a news conference in Tokyo on June 16, 2016, after the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence for a man convicted of murdering two people when he was 18. (Mainichi)

The Supreme Court's decision to uphold lower court rulings that sentenced a man to death for murdering two people and injuring another when he was 18 has shown there are limits to taking into account the possibility of defendants rehabilitating themselves and their ages in trials over heinous juvenile crimes.

While lay judges participated in the trial of the case at a district court, the top court determined that it was inevitable to choose the death penalty against the defendant, who was 18 years and seven months old at the time of the crime, considering that the crime was carefully premeditated and he murdered two people.

The decision marks the first time for a death sentence that was handed down in a lay judge trial to a defendant who was a minor at the time of the crime to be finalized.

In a 2006 ruling over the 1999 murder of a woman and her child in Hikari, Yamaguchi Prefecture, the top court stated that the fact that the defendant was 18 at the time of the crime "isn't a decisive factor for avoiding the death penalty." This ruling is said to have offered direction for dealing out harsh punishments against those who commit heinous crimes when they were 18 and 19.

When overturning a high court ruling that handed the death sentence to Norio Nagayama in 1983 for murdering four people in 1968 when he was 19, the Supreme Court showed what is now known as the "Nagayama Criteria," which demanded that courts take into consideration nine points in deciding whether to choose the death penalty. The nine points include the characteristics of the incidents, the numbers of victims and the ages at which the defendants committed the crimes.

Still, the top court stopped short of clarifying to what extent each point should be weighed.

Courts have been almost evenly split in their judgments on defendants convicted of murdering two people -- between the death penalty and life imprisonment -- even in case the defendants are adults. This highlights the lack of clarity of the Nagayama Criteria.

The Juvenile Act bans the death penalty against those aged below 18, in consideration of the possibility of such young offenders rehabilitating themselves in the future. The death sentences for five defendants in three cases, handed down after the top court showed the Nagayama Criteria, have been finalized. Among these three cases, the 1999 Hikari incident is the only one in which two people were murdered. When prosecutors demanded the death penalty for a defendant, even professional judges who tried the case faced difficulties in judging how far they should respect the spirit of the Juvenile Act.

Since the latest top court ruling made no mention of the possibility of the defendant rehabilitating himself, it is impossible to see how top court justices discussed the spirit of the Juvenile Act and drew a conclusion.

Psychological pressure on lay judges who face the choice between the death penalty or otherwise is immeasurable. Therefore, the Supreme Court should proactively show the details of discussions between justices that led to the conclusion that the death penalty was inevitable. (By Nobuyuki Shimada, Tokyo City News Department)

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