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Woman with brain damage charged for habitual shoplifting

A 37-year-old Tokyo woman suffering "higher brain dysfunction" caused by a head injury in a motorcycle accident was indicted for theft after developing a habit of shoplifting. Her trial has come under the spotlight among experts as there have been only a few legal cases dealing with criminal responsibility of patients suffering from so-called "unnoticed disability."

    Higher brain dysfunction is a disability in which damage to the brain caused by accidents leaves aftereffects such as memory loss, decreased attentiveness and reduced concentration. A person suffering this disability may become more likely to get tired easily and unable to control their emotions, though symptoms vary among patients. It is generally difficult to tell if the person has the disability from their appearance.

    According to the indictment and other sources, the woman is suspected of stealing two books from a bookstore in Tokyo on the night of April 20 this year. She was indicted for habitual theft with repeated convictions as she had been arrested and charged with shoplifting multiple times in the past.

    Her attorney and others say the woman suffered a head injury in a single-motorcycle accident in 2005 and was later diagnosed with higher brain dysfunction as the head injury left her paralyzed in the left lower limb and decreased her memory and attentiveness.

    After the accident, she suddenly developed a habit of shoplifting and since 2008 she has been found guilty of theft at least three times. The woman's 61-year-old mother says, "She was a cheerful, outgoing person, and had never shoplifted before. But after the accident, she became unable to sit still, and started displaying behavior like she was unable to control herself, such as running away from home."

    When her name and home address was read aloud during the first hearing of her trial at the Tokyo District Court on June 28, the woman told the court, "That is correct," while trying not to laugh. She apparently cannot stop laughing when she is nervous, and her attorney attributed such behavior to her disability.

    In her previous trials, the woman was denied a psychiatric evaluation even though her attorney at the time requested psychiatric tests.

    After the woman served two prison sentences, her family consulted public officials. While support measures for the woman were being prepared and she was being seen by a specialist for the first time, she shoplifted once again and was indicted.

    According to an occupational therapist who sees her, the woman cannot remember something she heard half an hour ago, makes up stories to cover her memory loss and cannot resist temptation to do things she wants to do, among other symptoms.

    While welfare and medical services are available for those with intellectual disabilities and dementia, there is little help available for patients with higher brain dysfunction and for their family members.

    The occupational therapist points out that shoplifting is a result of the woman not being able to control her temptation for something she wants, and added, "The habitual thefts are the result of being left behind without appropriate support."

    Etsuko Higashigawa, secretary-general of the nonprofit Japan Traumatic Brain Injury Association, says it's hard to tell if a person is suffering higher brain dysfunction from their appearance.

    "They tend to be misunderstood in their community and become isolated. A framework to support these people is necessary to deepen public understanding of this disability and prevent the patients from repeating crimes," Higashigawa said.

    In a similar case, the Otsu District Court in August last year found a woman with higher brain dysfunction not guilty of theft after acknowledging that she was mentally incompetent because of her disability.

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