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Unprecedented road rage trial decision a step toward eliminating reckless driving

Fumiko Hagiyama, whose son Yoshihisa Hagiyama was killed in a road rage accident, shows his clothes and talks about him in Shimizu Ward in the central Japan city of Shizuoka, Shizuoka Prefecture, on Nov. 7, 2018. (Mainichi/Shotaro Kinoshita)

YOKOHAMA -- The unprecedented lay judge trial of a man in a road rage case that left a couple dead and their daughters injured captured public attention, with 682 people lining up for 41 gallery seat tickets at the district court here when it handed him 18 years in prison on Dec. 14.

"It was an unprecedented case with no resources available. I was at a loss about how to make a decision, as I sometimes put myself in the place of the victim," confided a 45-year-old woman who served as a lay judge in the trial during a press conference after the ruling.

The difficulty of trying defendant Kazuho Ishibashi, 26, was that his actions that caused the death of the couple occurred while the vehicles of both the defendant and the victims were stationary. This situation is not provided for in the Act on Punishment of Acts Inflicting Death or Injury on Others by Driving a Motor Vehicle, etc., under which he was indicted.

The couple, Yuka Hagiyama, 39, and her 45-year-old husband Yoshihisa, were killed when a truck struck their van from behind after Ishibashi had forced them to stop in a lane on the Tomei Expressway in Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo, in June 2017. The Yokohama District Court applied the charge of dangerous driving causing death or injury under the act in sentencing Ishibashi to 18 years in prison.

At the opening of the Dec. 14 hearing that began at 11 a.m., Presiding Judge Shigeyuki Fukazawa asked the defendant, "Do you have anything to say?" Ishibashi replied, "No."

While the defendant had claimed to be innocent of reckless driving causing death or injury in the case, he was staring straight ahead while the grounds for the ruling was being read, at times crossing his arms.

The bereaved family of the Hagiyamas attended the trial and demanded severe punishment for Ishibashi. At a hearing on Dec. 4, the 17-year-old elder daughter of the couple testified about the details of the incident. After the family's car was forced to stop on the expressway, she said the defendant threatened her father, "Do you want to be killed?" even though he was apologizing to Ishibashi. She told the court, "Please give him a severe criminal punishment so that there will be less reckless driving."

After hearing about the ruling against Ishibashi on Dec. 14, the daughter said, "It was good that they handed down a decision in consideration of our feelings."

Fumiko Hagiyama, the 78-year-old mother of Yoshihisa Hagiyama, said, "I'm not entirely satisfied with the sentencing. But it was good that the defendant's actions were recognized as dangerous driving." The family members' comments were released by the lawyer representing them.

In the gallery on Dec. 14 was Yoshinori Nakae, 55, whose pregnant daughter, Yukihi Matsumura, then 26, was killed when a car driven by a boy without a license plowed into a group of children on their way to school, leaving 10 dead or injured, in Kameoka, Kyoto Prefecture, in 2012. Nakae had sat in on the hearings of Ishibashi's case.

"I'm glad that the charge of dangerous driving causing death or injury was applied to this case," he said. "This is more than a single step forward. I hope a framework will be created where the charge applied properly aligns with the crime."

(Japanese original by Tsumuki Nakamura, Kazuhiko Hori and Ai Kunimoto, Yokohama Bureau)

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