YOKOHAMA DISTRICT COURT, YOKOSUKA BRANCH, Japan — There was no question of guilt at Petty Officer 2nd Class Joel Beza’s trial. He was speeding. He ran a red light and plowed into another car. He was negligent and, because of it, a man named Kenichi Kenoshita died at age 64 of a ruptured blood vessel near his heart. Beza, charged with negligent driving resulting in death or injury, admitted it.

What was at issue, for almost two hours Tuesday in a drab Yokohama District Court courtroom — and what could determine whether he spends years in prison or receives a suspended sentence — was whether Beza was sorry enough.

Repeatedly, the 23-year-old Kitty Hawk electronics technician tried to convince Judge Setsuo Fukushima that he was.

“I’m sorry that because of me a man had to die, and so many people, not just the victims, had to suffer, because of me,” he told the judge. “It breaks my heart that I can’t do anything to ease that pain. I failed everyone, including myself. I wish I wasn’t such a coward and a failure. I am sorry. Deeply sorry. I wish this would never happen to anyone else. I’m sorry.”

The prosecutor nonetheless asked that Beza be sentenced to 4½ years in prison, with forced labor. That’s just six months under the legal maximum sentence Japan allows for negligent driving resulting in death and serious injury.

Beza had not exceeded even Japan’s stringent 0.03 blood alcohol limit for driving. Still, the prosecutor, whose name was not released, called it “unspeakable” that he’d had a glass of wine with dinner before getting behind the wheel. Beza was speeding — going about 50 mph to 62 mph where the speed limit was about 38 mph, or 60 kilometers per hour. He saw the light turn yellow, then red, but failed to brake in time, the prosecutor said. As a result, Kenoshita’s “ordinary, happy life” had been cut short Jan. 5, his family thrust into the “depths of despair.”

“He has no respect for rules,” the prosecutor said, according to the translator. “It can’t be said he atones.”

Defense lawyer Midori Tanaka asked that Beza — on his way with two friends the night of the crash to buy stereo speakers and a space heater — be given a suspended sentence.

To his credit, she said, he’d paid about $1,000 to the Kenoshita family for funeral expenses and $200 to the family of a man in a nearby auto injured when Kenoshita’s car, propelled by the impact, caromed into it.

Beza’s insurance was expected to compensate Kenoshita’s family fully for his lost wages — estimated at about $273,000 — and if it did not, the family could file a claim with the U.S. Navy.

What’s more, Tanaka said, her client had sent condolence cards, as had his commander and his father in the United States; he’d likely be discharged from the Navy and might then have a hard time getting a job.

“We don’t deny that the responsibility isn’t light,” Tanaka said, but “he didn’t run away, and he honestly told the police about the accident. He’s a model citizen, his commander said.”

The judge is to issue his sentence at a 3 p.m. hearing March 25.

The slight, bespectacled Beza, dressed all in black but for his brown Japanese sandals and white socks, has been in Japanese custody since his arrest the night of the collision. Two jail guards in blue uniforms and caps led him tethered into the courtroom.

Appearing tired and pale, his black hair grown nearly to his collar, Beza sat between the guards, facing the judge, and when called upon to speak, stood abjectly at a lectern, shoulders slumped forward, eyes cast down. The prosecutor was at a table to his left. At a table to his right sat his defense lawyer and two observers from Yokosuka Naval Base: Koichi Sekizawa, a base legal advisor, and Lt. Chris Phan, a military prosecutor. A translator translated everything that was said into English, or, after Beza spoke, into Japanese.

Beza had no friends or family members in the sparsely attended courtroom; Phan, at the end of the hearing, gave Beza a quick pat on the arm before he was led away.

The hearing was called a trial but resembled a U.S. sentencing hearing. Prosecution and defense alternated making arguments and asking Beza questions, often open-ended, seemingly designed to illicit answers showing his remorse, or lack of it.

Asked repeatedly why he didn’t slow down or slam on the brakes earlier, Beza said he was afraid that he’d lose control of the car and crash … that he panicked.

“I made a mistake,” he said.

According to Yokosuka prosecutors, six cases of negligent driving resulting in death or injury were prosecuted last year. The average sentence length of those convicted was unavailable, they said.

Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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