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1st hearing in Tomei Expressway road rage deaths held, defense denies reckless driving

(Mainichi)

YOKOHAMA -- Attorneys for a 26-year-old man charged with reckless driving resulting in death and other offenses over the June 2017 deaths of a couple on the Tomei Expressway pleaded not guilty as his lay judge trial opened at the Yokohama District Court on Dec. 3.

Kazuho Ishibashi allegedly drove recklessly and forced Yoshihisa and Yuka Hagiyama, then 45 and 39, to stop their van in a lane on the expressway in Oi, Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo, after which the couple were killed when a large truck slammed into the van from behind. The defense is claiming that since the accident occurred after Ishibashi stopped the vehicle, he cannot be charged with reckless driving resulting in death and injury.

During opening remarks, in addition to calling Ishibashi's actions "obstinate, dangerous and malicious," the prosecution stated, "If the victim's vehicle was forced to stop on an expressway, then it could be imagined that someone would be killed," emphasizing the cause and effect relationship between Ishibashi's actions and the accident. Prosecutors also declared that the defendant's driving, cutting in front of and scraping the front of another vehicle to obstruct it, fit the conditions for the crime of reckless driving resulting in death or injury.

The defense team said they "would not dispute the facts" in the incident. However, they stressed that the accident with the truck occurred after Ishibashi had forced the Hagiyamas to stop their van, and therefore did not constitute reckless driving resulting in the couple's deaths.

Following the opinion of the district court during procedures leading up the trial, the prosecution also added the preliminary charge of unlawful confinement causing death or injury. The defense questioned the applicability of the charge, as Ishibashi only stopped the Hagiyamas' van for roughly two minutes, making for an extremely short confinement and a weak case.

On the first day of the trial, Ishibashi appeared in court in a black sweatshirt. When the judge read out the indictment and asked for confirmation from Ishibashi, the accused began explaining where he had grabbed Yoshihisa Hagiyama, saying in a whisper, "Not his chest, by his left arm," among other utterances. The Hagiyamas' family was in the gallery observing the trial under the victim participation system.

According to the indictment and other information, Ishibashi grew angry after Yoshihisa Hagiyama warned him about the way he stopped his vehicle in a parking area along the Tomei Expressway's Nagoya-bound lanes on the night of June 5, 2017. When the van carrying the family of four left the parking area, Ishibashi chased after them in his own vehicle.

Ishibashi then allegedly engaged in dangerous driving including cutting in front of the Hagiyamas' van and slowing down, forcing the couple to stop in the passing lane next to the expressway median. It was then that a truck hit the van from behind, killing Yoshihisa and Yuka and leaving their two daughters in the vehicle with light injuries.

A decision on the case is set to be handed down on Dec. 14.

(Japanese original by Shotaro Kinoshita and Yuhi Sugiyama, Yokohama Bureau)

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