Marine gets 4 years with hard labor for drunken-driving death of Okinawa man

This image from a Tokyo Broadcasting System program shows the Marine-driven vehicle involved in a fatal crash in Naha, Okinawa, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.


By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 10, 2018

NAHA CITY, Okinawa – The Okinawa-based Marine who pleaded guilty last month in the drunken-driving death of a 61-year-old Japanese man has been sentenced to four years in prison with hard labor.

Lance Cpl. Nicholas James-McLean, 22, had been charged with negligent driving causing death and driving under the influence of alcohol in the Nov. 19 head-on collision that took the life of Hidemasa Taira. He appeared before a three-judge panel for sentencing Wednesday morning in Naha District Court.

The Camp Kinser-based Marine also faced substantial fines, though none were assessed at sentencing.

“His behavior was extremely dangerous, therefore his fault is great,” chief judge Toshihiro Shibata said while reading the verdict. “As a result the victim lost his precious life … it is inevitable that the defendant would receive the prison sentence.”

Shibata credited James-McLean with admitting guilt and showing remorse, two things that are weighed heavily in the Japanese legal system. He also pointed out that James-McLean had no prior criminal record.

James-McLean – wearing a gray sweatshirt, dark blue sweatpants and sporting a short beard – listened intently while the verdict was read but sat expressionless. He was not given an opportunity to speak. Several American supporters were seated in the gallery.

At his one-day trial on March 19, James-McLean said he did not know why he got behind the wheel the day of the crash.

“Stupidity,” he said. “It shouldn’t have happened. I know his family will never forgive me, and I will never forgive myself but all I can say is I’m sorry.”

Taira’s family had called for a “severe” punishment in the case. They did not speak or release a statement immediately after the verdict was read.

James-McLean’s attorney, Tetsu Amakata, was unsure whether or not his client would appeal the court’s decision. They have two weeks to do so.

James-McLean was “slightly injured” in the crash, which occurred at about 5:30 a.m. at an intersection in the Tomari section of Naha, just south of Camp Kinser. His U.S. government-owned Isuzu Elf collided head-on with Taira’s minitruck. Taira later died at a hospital from chest wounds and bleeding.

The Marine, who was off duty at the time, had a blood-alcohol content level that was three times Japan’s legal limit of 0.03 percent when he was tested four hours after the crash, prosecutors said at trial. They believe James-McLean’s BAC may have been as much as five times over Japan’s limit.

All 50 U.S. states have set 0.08 as the legal limit for driving under the influence or driving while impaired.

At trial, prosecutors played a video of the crash captured by another motorist. It showed James-McLean going through a red light. Taira had a green arrow and was in the process of making a right-hand turn.

They also recounted James-McLean’s actions prior to the crash. He had consumed alcohol on base and at a Chatan bar before returning to Camp Kinser after midnight. The next morning, he got into a U.S. government-owned vehicle he used for his job in the maintenance department.

News of Taira’s death spurred a wave of anti-American sentiment on the small island prefecture, which already hosts a small but potent anti-base protest movement, backed by popular support.

In response, U.S. Forces Japan banned the purchase and consumption of alcohol for the approximately 50,000 U.S. troops deployed across Japan, imposed a strict midnight to 5 a.m. curfew for Japan-based servicemembers and canceled all liberty on Okinawa.

The ban was relaxed on Nov. 30, allowing U.S. troops to once again purchase alcoholic beverages on base and drink them in their on- or off-base homes. USFJ’s Japan-wide curfew, which applies only to lower enlisted servicemembers and runs from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m., went back into effect the following month.

Freelance reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.


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