AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Was Japan’s Lizzie Borden lucky?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 29, 2008

POLICE BLOTTER CASES seldom get covered on this site, but yesterday’s verdict in a Tokyo murder trial brings up some aspects of the criminal justice system that the Japanese media don’t seem to be addressing.

Here are the facts, in brief:

Mihashi Kaori
Shortly after getting married in March 2003, Mihashi Yusuke, an employee of a securities firm, began beating his wife. The beatings were severe enough that she was admitted to a shelter for domestic violence victims with a broken nose and a bruised face in June 2006. She returned to her husband a month later.

Mihashi Kaori (photo) eventually asked for a divorce, but her husband refused to grant one on her terms. Her lawyers also allege that Mr. Mihashi had taken nude photographs of his wife and threatened to make them public if she insisted on a divorce.

On 12 December 2006, Mrs. Mihashi killed her husband by hitting him in the head with a wine bottle when he was asleep. The evidence showed that she kept whacking him in the head with the bottle just to make sure–an autopsy revealed 10 separate head wounds. She then used a saw to cut his body into five pieces in their Shibuya apartment and hid the pieces in Tokyo.

Mrs. Mihashi was given a psychiatric evaluation by two doctors, one selected by the defense attorneys and the other selected by the prosecutors. In their judgment, the defendant was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and therefore not criminally responsible for her acts.

Presiding Judge Kawamoto Masaya did not agree, however. Here’s what he said:

Her husband physically abused her soon after they were married, and she began hallucinating. The content of the psychiatric evaluation is reliable…it can be said that her married life was a (living) hell, she felt despair, and on the spur of the moment, she was seized by a homicidal intent. Her psychiatric problems, however, did not create a problem with her capacity to assume responsibility (for her act).

He continued:

She was fully capable of understanding her responsibility. She committed a brutal act by persistently and repeatedly striking her husband in the head, cutting his body into five pieces, and disposing of it. She also trampled on the emotions of her husband’s parents, who were concerned about the safety of their son, by sending them an e-mail that led them to believe he was alive.

Mrs. Mihashi impersonated her husband and sent a text message to her father-in-law on his cell phone telling him not to worry for the recent lack of communication.

The judge also said:

Her motive for murder is understandable, but she repeatedly took several rational steps to conceal what she had done and prevent the discovery (of the crime). These included buying a saw, cutting up the body, and disposing of it.

Cultural note: Cutting up a body and disposing of it is a crime in Japan, and Mrs. Mihashi was charged with that offense in addition to murder.

Judge Kawasaki sentenced her to 15 years in jail. The prosecutors asked for 20, and they’re not certain yet whether they will appeal for a longer sentence.

Mrs. Mihashi’s defense attorney was not pleased:

This contravenes the Supreme Court ruling that psychiatric evaluations of a defendant’s competency should be respected, and is (therefore) unfair.

When asked whether she would file an appeal, he said:

I think she should, but (Mrs. Mihashi) has said she will not appeal. I’ll discuss it with her again.

Mihashi Yusuke’s parents, however, claim that their son was not a wife-beater. They also complained about media coverage of the case that they thought focused excessively on their son’s behavior. (Sound familiar?)

All the information available to us is second- or third-hand, filtered through the media and its infotainment agenda, so it’s impossible for any of us to have an informed opinion. That’s not the reason I bring up the case here, however.

In May 2009–little more than a year from now–Japan’s legal system will undergo a revolution. Trials are currently adjudicated by a panel consisting of three judges. Starting next year, that panel will be expanded to include six citizen judges serving on a case-by-case basis. The presiding judge will be responsible for determining the sentence.

Decisions will be made by majority vote, so citizens can overrule the judges. The judges will be able to overrule the citizens only when all six citizens vote to convict and all three judges vote not guilty. (Here’s a previous post about this with plenty of links.)

Yesterday’s verdict makes me wonder:

  • Would the citizens be more likely to accept the psychiatric evaluation in Mrs. Mihashi’s case than were the judges?
  • Would a citizen panel with more women than men tend to sympathize with defendants such as Mrs. Mihashi? How would a citizen panel with more men behave?

The Japanese public supports the death penalty by an overwhelming margin. (Surveys usually find support to be more than 70%; the previous post on the judicial system links to an article citing a survey showing 80% support.)

  • Would a citizen panel that voted to convict a defendant of murder push the judges to impose a sentence tougher than 15 years? Will the change in the system lead to more executions?

The Japanese have traditionally been more deferential to authority than people in other countries, and some think the members of a lay citizen panel would tend to defer to the judges. Twenty years ago, I would have agreed. But Japanese society has changed so much since then that I’m not sure it’s safe to make that assumption today.

That opinion also fails to take into consideration what might happen once citizens on the panel begin to realize they can exercise real power.

The new legal system is just one of several changes that will transform Japanese society in the coming years. As is usually the case, that transformation will be largely sotto voce. How those changes will reconfigure the life of the nation is anyone’s guess.

Note: Here’s an English language account by the Japan Times, noteworthy if only for all the information it leaves out.

2 Responses to “Was Japan’s Lizzie Borden lucky?”

  1. Ken said

    This case is very rare as the trial in Japan on the point that the judge denied doctors’ opinion about the suspect’s mental disorder.
    He/She would have attached importance to the fact that the suspect sent mails to victim’s relatives as if the vistim was still alive.
    The readers judged more severely than above judge as follows.
    http://sankei.jp.msn.com/affairs/trial/080429/trl0804291526003-n1.htm
    Japanese people tend to judge from own conscience regardless of developed pleading situation.
    Though it can decrease the possibility that richer criminal may win by hiring theatrical lawyer, Japan should adopt Debate in school curriculum to be used to such arguement.

  2. ampontan said

    Sometimes journalists like to quote college professors in their articles to say what they want to say, but aren’t supposed to.

    Of the articles I read, I saw only one quoting professors. (There could have been more.)

    The article quoted two professors, both of whom said the case was complicated. They both agreed with the judge. One wondered if the judges would be able to properly explain the procedures to a citizen judge panel.

    Interestingly enough, that was in a sports shimbun, and I think it was the Sankei-affiliated paper.

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