Doubt still haunts the presiding judge who handed down a life sentence, instead of one of death, to one of the five members of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult for carrying out the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995.
Megumi Yamamuro, 63, was the presiding judge in the case of Ikuo Hayashi, 64.
"It was such an unprecedented case that at first I thought this surely meant the death penalty," Yamamuro said. "I think that was the general feeling in society."
Now a lawyer, Yamamuro was sitting as a judge at the Tokyo District Court when Hayashi's case came before it in October 1997.
A total of 14 members of Aum, including the founder, Chizuo Matsumoto, 56, were tried for murder in connection with the sarin gas attack that killed 13 people and injured more than 6,000 on the Tokyo subway system in March 1995.
Hayashi's case proceeded most quickly of those of the 14 Aum defendants. He was one of five people accused of actually carrying out the attack. The four others were all given death sentences.
About five months after Yamamuro first began handling the case, prosecutors suggested that only a life sentence rather than the death penalty should be given to Hayashi.
One reason for the decision was Hayashi's role in bringing to light the entire plot behind the subway attack. While the other defendants refused to speak in court, Hayashi confessed his role.
In sentencing discussions with the two other judges hearing the case, Yamamuro said an image of Hayashi undergoing cross-examination kept coming back to him.
Hayashi had begun talking about two subway employees who died trying to protect subway passengers.
Hayashi said in court: "I am a doctor, which is a profession where I should normally be saving people's lives. But, in comparison with those two ..."
Hayashi broke down crying and could not continue with his testimony.
Yamamuro recalled: "I never saw another defendant either before or after Hayashi who cried to that extent."
He said: "While there was a part of me that calmly viewed the scene and thought 'what is bad is bad,' that may have been the moment when the sprout of a life sentence first emerged."
Another factor that influenced the decision was an indication from a bereaved family member that the death penalty was not necessary.
"I took into consideration to a maximum degree the repentance that he expressed," Yamamuro said. "The feelings of bereaved family members also provided support."
Before reading the verdict in court, he reviewed the wording countless times. It concluded with the words: "Presenting a life sentence is acceptable under the current judicial structure."
Neither side appealed, so the sentence stood.
A few months later, as court staff talked about the verdict in the judges' chambers, one official, whose job had placed the individual physically closest to Hayashi while the court was in session, asked Yamamuro: "Were you not deceived (by Hayashi)?"
And, when Yamamuro later learned that Hayashi was practicing Zen sitting meditation in prison, doubts about the court's leniency emerged. The judge asked himself: "Has he really cut all ties with Aum? Was he just a very good actor in court?"
The court employee's question has continued to haunt Yamamuro, but he believes, in the absence of a divine ability to peer into a defendant's soul and be certain of remorse, he can only stand by the decision he reached after seeing Hayashi's words and deeds in the courtroom.
"I will likely never be able to remove that thorn (of doubt)," Yamamuro said, more than 13 years since handing down the decision. "Still, I have no regrets about that verdict even now. That is because I feel if I were to handle that case all over again, I believe I would write the same verdict."
- « Prev
- Next »