FOLLOW-UP:Three U.S. teens cleared in Japan case(12-27-09)

TOKYO — Four U.S. teens in Japanese custody on suspicion of attempted murder could stay in confinement well into February before facing any criminal charges, according to Japanese legal experts.

The teens — an 18-year-old, a 17-year-old and two 15-year-olds — were arrested Dec. 5, suspected of stringing a rope across a street near Yokota Air Base in August and causing a Japanese motorcyclist to crash. The 23-year-old woman who was driving suffered a skull fracture and lay in a coma for weeks.

Since their arrests, the teens have been questioned by Japanese prosecutors without the presence of their parents or defense attorneys, military officials said Friday. All are younger than 20 and thus minors under Japanese law, which allows extended detention while a family court judge weighs a recommendation on whether to file charges.

They have been held separately, first at a local police station and now at four separate juvenile detention centers, according to military officials. Their parents — servicemembers in Yokota units — have visited the teens, but it’s unlikely the families can talk alone without guards and interpreters nearby, one legal scholar said.

The prolonged confinement and one-sided interrogations bear little resemblance to judicial procedures in the United States, where suspects can request lawyers and where prosecutors must bring charges quickly in open documents and courtrooms.

Those legal differences are complicated further in this case, which involves suspects who are both U.S. military family members and minors. Even the military was unsure in early stages, initially maintaining the teens qualified for the same protections as military personnel while Japanese authorities investigated the possible crime.

That is not the case, a spokesman for U.S. Forces Japan said Thursday.

“We all have to deal with the Japanese system if we get in trouble off base,” said Marine Corps Maj. Neal Fisher.

But military members have a slight advantage in the initial stages of a Japanese investigation that does not extend to Pentagon civilian workers or any family members living in the country, according to Fisher.

In Japan, criminal suspects may be held 23 days without a charge while prosecutors question them and gather other evidence. If servicemembers are arrested off base, they, too, face pre-charge confinement.

However, the status of forces agreement with Japan provides some protection for servicemembers who are physically on a military base, according to Fisher. In that case, Japanese authorities may not arrest them unless an actual charge is brought forward or the military decides to turn the servicemember over to Japanese authorities.

All others — including the teens — can face custody behind bars before formal charges are brought by prosecutors.

And as suspects who are younger than 20, the teens face an additional confinement before appearing in court, according to a spokesman for Japan’s Ministry of Justice.

In their cases, the local prosecutor has until next weekend to make recommendations to a family court judge on how to proceed.

Then that judge can take an additional eight weeks to decide whether the teens should face adult charges, be treated as juveniles, or be released to their parents on a probationary status.

In the meantime, the parents have hired Japanese defense lawyers, and the military is tracking the case from a distance, military officials said.

“They are on their own,” said William Cleary, who holds a doctorate in Japanese law and consults with Japanese attorneys who have foreign clients. “They should be educated to that.”

Yokota spokesman Air Force Maj. Christopher Watt agreed.

“We know there’s a heavy rumor mill out there we need to address,” Watt said Thursday. “It was clear from this, we need to educate.”

Wing leaders are planning a campaign for early next year to remind airmen and their families about the privileges and consequences of living in Japan, especially when it comes to the local police and judicial system, Watt said. The campaign will address generic situations and not the specific case with the teens, he added.

Authorities have not identified the teens by name. Japanese police described the oldest teen as an unemployed male, 18. The other three are high school students, two boys and a girl.

The victim has been able to return to work part-time, Watt said.

An adult attempted-murder conviction could bring a life sentence, Cleary said.

Juvenile criminals, however, typically end up in the Japanese reformatory system, which provides correctional and vocational education for juveniles 12 to 19. Of the 52 reformatory schools throughout Japan, a dozen can accommodate foreigners who might need language support, according to a spokesman with Ministry of Justice.

There’s a possibility, however, that the teens could be released by the family court judge to the care of their parents under a sort of probation, according to Satoshi Kawamitus, a defense lawyer who defends U.S. servicemembers and other SOFA-status Americans charged with crimes.

And there’s also the possibility that the family court judge could decide the evidence does not show the teens have any responsibility for the accident, experts said.

It can help if the suspects show remorse during this pre-charge stage, despite the lack of formal charges, said Cleary, who also worked in international law for the military at Yokota a few years ago. Often that remorse comes as an apology and a payment to the victim to show the suspect is taking responsibility for his or her actions.

Those overtures have not happened, Fisher said.

“A lot of those things indicate guilt,” he said. “The kids haven’t been charged yet.”

author picture
Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.

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