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Prosecutors seek 6 years with hard labor for Marine charged in drunken-driving death on Okinawa

This image shows the interior of an Isuzu Elf driven by Lance Cpl. Nicholas James-McLean, 21, who has been charged in the Nov. 21, 2017, crash that killed a Japanese national on Okinawa.

SCREENSHOT FROM TBS

By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 19, 2018

NAHA CITY, Okinawa — Prosecutors recommended six years in prison with hard labor for an Okinawa-based Marine who pleaded guilty Monday in the drunken-driving death of a 61-year-old Japanese man.

Lance Cpl. Nicholas James-McLean, 22, was charged with negligent driving causing death and driving under the influence of alcohol after the Nov. 19 head-on collision that took the life of Hidemasa Taira.

The Camp Kinser-based Marine, who also faces substantial fines, is scheduled to be sentenced April 11.

As he stood before the three-judge panel Monday at Naha District Court for his one-day trial, James-McLean — clad in a bright-green T-shirt and black pants and flanked by court guards — expressed remorse for his actions. He said he did not know why he got behind the wheel that day.

“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.”

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

During Monday’s proceedings, prosecutors recounted James-McLean’s actions that night, saying he consumed alcohol on base and at a Chatan bar before returning to Kinser after midnight. The next morning, he got into a U.S. government-owned vehicle he used for his job in the maintenance department.

“Driving a motor vehicle under such conditions is extremely dangerous and his fault is serious,” prosecutors said during the trial. “It is clear there is no fault with the victim who was on his way to work at the time.”

Prosecutors then 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 taking a right-hand turn.

Taira’s family called for a “severe” punishment in the case, prosecutors said.

James-McLean’s attorney, Tetsu Amakata, asked the court to rule on the merits of the case and not punish his client more severely for being American.

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

burke.matt@stripes.com

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