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Families of murder victims launch group to abolish statute of limitations

Sep 03, 2010

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With less than three years left before his daughter’s killer can legally become a free man, and never face punishment for his crime, grieving father Kenji Kobayashi and a group of other bereaved families are standing up to fight Japan’s statute of limitations on murder cases. 

I’m Liza Hearon for Kyodo News in Tokyo, and in this podcast I will take a closer look at a topic that has received new attention in 2009 as more people are starting to speak out more vociferously against it.

Certainly, the statute of limitations has made for some very dramatic criminal cases — the idea of a ticking clock counting down the time until a murderer can live freely if he or she is not convicted for 15 or 25 years seems almost made for television.

Britain and all U.S. states have no statute of limitations on the most severe murder cases. Japan adopted France’s idea of limitations for murders in 1882, thinking that evidence can get lost over time. Initially, it was set to 15 years, but was changed to 25 years in 2005.

However, the 20 regular members of “Sora no Kai,” or, “A group of eternal time,” in English, say that while they have to suffer from the loss of their family members forever, the existence of the statute of limitations itself is like a reward for killers who can evade capture for long enough.

The group’s chairman is 80-year-old Yoshiyuki Miyazawa, whose son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren were killed in 2000. He is also joined by the father of Lindsay Hawker, a British English teacher who was killed in Japan and whose killer remains missing.

Another high-profile case the clock ran out on was the stabbing of 24-year-old Michie Namai in Sapporo in 1990. The perpetrator, now 39, is still missing and the 15-year limit passed in December 2005.

The victim’s 72-year-old mother, Sumiko Namai, has been a vocal crusader against the limitations. She says that at the instant the limit ran out, she was mortified, and that her feelings toward the killer have not changed.

Her feelings run contrary to one of the original reasons behind the statute of limitations — that demands for harsh penalties can wane with the passage of time.

It was thought that evidence could also wane as time passes, becoming scattered and making it difficult to prove a killer’s guilt.

However, advances in criminal investigations technology such as DNA analysis have made it possible to preserve evidence over a long period of time, leading to greater hopes that cold cases will be resolved.

Himeji Dokkyo University professor Takashi Michitani said that while he believes there are various reasons for the system, there has not been an intensive discussion that includes the views of crime victims’ families.

There have been some recent victories for families of crime victims, though. In 2005, the statute of limitations for murder was extended to 25 years from 15, although this only applies to cases after the revision.

And another demand by the National Association of Crime Victims and Surviving Families, allowing families and crime victims to participate in trials, has been implemented since December last year.

Most recently, the Justice Ministry has set up a study group on the issue, and is expected to compile a report by March. However, ministry sources say that some people remain cautious about changing the laws as only four years have passed since the revision.

Still, after spending years keeping silent about the 1996 murder of his daughter out of fear that he may be targeted by the suspect, Sora no Kai organizer Kenji Kobayashi feels that stepping into the public eye to raise awareness is now the right thing to do.

He told Kyodo News, ‘’The bereaved families in cold cases feel the same regarding the statute of limitations… and if we start to raise our voices together, even a mountain could move.'’

Thanks for tuning in to this podcast. Please check out our other English-language podcasts on news topics (at home.kyodo.co.jp.)

 

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