Life imprisonment was finalized for a convicted murderer who was previously sentenced to die by citizen judges, a case that raised questions on whether the nature of a crime should outweigh precedent in decisions on capital punishment.

In a decision dated July 1, the First Petty Bench of the Supreme Court rejected an appeal from prosecutors who were seeking the death sentence for Yasuhiro Kimino, 52, who was convicted of murder, kidnapping for obscene purposes, desecrating a body, and abandoning a corpse.

His victim in 2014 was a 6-year-old girl in Kobe.

A panel of citizen judges at the Kobe District Court in 2016 sentenced Kimino to death. But the Osaka High Court in 2017 overturned the sentence and gave him a life term.

All five justices of the First Petty Bench agreed with the high court’s decision.

The top court took into account arguments that the murder was not premeditated and that Kimino did not have a criminal record of murder before the 2014 killing.

“His disregard for human life is clear, but it cannot be said that this attitude was extremely conspicuous,” the decision said.

“The death sentence, which is the ultimate punishment, must be used in a cautious manner. Given this viewpoint and (the necessity for) securing fairness (with earlier cases), it is difficult to say that choosing the death sentence was really inevitable,” it said.

Under the citizen judge system that started at district courts in 2009, high courts have given life sentences to five people who were earlier sentenced to death at the district court level.

Four of the life terms have been finalized. The remaining case is still being deliberated at the Supreme Court.

The heinous nature of the Kobe case was never in doubt.

According to both the district and high court rulings, Kimino lured the girl, then a first-grader at elementary school, to his home in September 2014 by telling her, “I want you to become a model for my drawings.”

After taking the girl to his home, Kimino strangled her with a rope and stabbed her in the back of the neck with a kitchen knife to prevent the kidnapping from coming to light. He then committed obscene acts on the dead girl’s body.

He later severed the corpse, placed it in a plastic bag and abandoned it in a thicket, the rulings said.

In the citizen judge trial, the Kobe District Court ruled that the murder was not premeditated, saying Kimino decided to kill the girl after he took her into his home.

But the court still sentenced him to death.

“The motives and his methods for the murder alone clearly made it obvious that he lacked any regard for human life,” the ruling said.

However, the Osaka High Court in its ruling said the district court unfairly made light of the fact that the murder was not premeditated.

Death sentences are usually not given in murder cases in which there is only one victim, the killing was not premeditated, the victim did not suffer from sexual violence, and the suspect had no criminal record of that crime.

Based on those earlier rulings, the high court sentenced Kimino to life imprisonment.

Prosecutors in their appeal to the Supreme Court argued that Kimino killed the girl so that she could not resist his obscene acts, and that it cannot be said that her murder was accidental.

They also cited three previous murder cases involving obscene purposes in which the culprits had their death sentences finalized, even if there was only one victim and if the murder was not premeditated.

“It will be intolerable if the misunderstanding spreads that death sentences are not permitted if the murder is not premeditated,” they said.

They urged the Supreme Court to look at the nature of Kimino’s case from a comprehensive viewpoint.

PUTTING IMPORTANCE ON PAST CASES

Citizen judge trials were introduced in district courts in 2009 to reflect the views of the public in criminal trials.

Higher courts, which consist of only professional judges, have basically respected district courts’ rulings.

But in capital punishment cases, higher courts appear to be looking more at precedents in determining whether a death sentence should stand. The Supreme Court’s decision on July 1 reflected that trend.

In 2013, a high court for the first time revoked a death sentence given by citizen judges.

In two robbery-murder cases in 2009 involving one fatality each, the Tokyo High Court sentenced the accused to life imprisonment.

Behind those rulings was a study report released in 2012 by the Supreme Court’s Legal Research and Training Institute.

The institute looked into 346 cases over the past 30 years in which prosecutors sought death sentences. It found that courts generally avoided giving death sentences in cases in which the murder was not premeditated and there was only one victim.

In 2015, the Supreme Court supported the Tokyo High Court rulings in the two robbery-murder cases and finalized the life sentences.

In its decisions on the two cases, the top court said that when capital punishment is involved, it is necessary to secure fairness with other past trials. It added that this view is unchanged even with the introduction of citizen judge trials.

In 2014, the Tokyo High Court revoked a death sentence given by a district court and handed a life term to an individual convicted in a crime in which three people were killed in 2010.

“The accused person’s involvement in the case was limited,” the high court said at the time.

Prosecutors did not appeal the high court’s decision to the Supreme Court, but the individual did, seeking leniency. The top court rejected the appeal in 2015.

WHY HOLD CITIZEN JUDGE TRIALS?

The mother of the murdered 6-year-old girl in Kobe gave her opinion on when death sentences should apply in a statement issued through a lawyer.

“My daughter was unreasonably deprived of her life, and her time of living was only six years. If judges make decisions based only on past cases and do not contemplate the weight of a human life, I wonder why they held the citizen judge trial,” she said. “I cannot accept the Supreme Court’s decision. I cannot tell this to my daughter, either.”