The Supreme Court refused Thursday to reverse the death sentence handed to former senior Aum Shinrikyo member Kazuaki Okazaki for the brutal murder of a lawyer and his family and another slaying.
With the rejection of his appeal, Okazaki became the first among 13 cultists to have his death sentence upheld by the nation’s highest court.
Okazaki, 44, could still file a request with the Supreme Court to reconsider. He has 10 days to do so. If he doesn’t, it means his death sentence is finalized and ready to be carried out.
Okazaki was initially sentenced to death in October 1998 by the Tokyo District Court for the November 1989 slayings of anti-Aum lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, 33, his wife, Satoko, 29, and their 1-year-old son, Tatsuhiko. He was also sentenced for the murder of Shuji Taguchi, a fellow cultist who was trying to flee the cult and was killed as punishment.
In its ruling, the First Petty Bench of the Supreme Court said: “There is no margin for allowing for extenuating circumstances because the motive of the crime was for the sole purpose of protecting the cult’s organization. The crime was organized and planned, and also cold-hearted and brutal. The bereaved family members are seeking punishment and the effects of the crime on society were also large.”
The court took note of the fact that Okazaki had voluntarily confessed to the crimes but said that does not warrant a reduction of the punishment.
In a February court session, Okazaki’s lawyers argued it was unfair to sentence their client to death when Ikuo Hayashi, another cultist, had confessed to 12 murders, all victims of the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.
Okazaki’s lawyers said handing the death sentence to their client would excessively upset the balance in punishment given to those involved in Aum crimes. They also took issue with the Tokyo High Court’s decision in December 2001 to uphold the death sentence on grounds Okazaki did not come forward quickly enough to confess to his crimes. The lawyers said it was wrong to use the Constitution to say when a defendant should confess.
After murdering Sakamoto and his family with other cult members, Okazaki fled Aum. Although he was questioned by Kanagawa prefectural police from about 1990, Okazaki initially denied involvement in any crimes.
It was only in April 1995, after police raided Aum facilities in the wake of the March 20, 1995, sarin gas attack, that Okazaki began confessing.
Thursday’s ruling came as no surprise to those who knew the Sakamotos.
Satoko’s father, Tomoyuki Oyama, said in a statement: “It is regrettable that only the punishment of the criminals is confirmed without any revelation of the truth.” Oyama did not attend Thursday’s session.
Hisashi Okada, a colleague of Sakamoto’s at the Yokohama Law Office, said: “I have no special feelings since the ruling was expected. However, since this will be the first time the death sentence is to be finalized for any of the killers, I want to report that to (the spirits of) the three.”
Five Aum members have been found guilty in the murders of the Sakamoto family.
So far, 13 Aum members have been handed the death sentence for their involvement in a series of crimes that include the Sakamoto family murders, the sarin attack in Tokyo and one the year before in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, that targeted judges presiding over a case involving Aum and killed seven people.
Nine other Aum members are awaiting rulings from the Supreme Court. Seven of them are appealing their death sentences.
None of those cases have even begun arguments in the Supreme Court.
Five appeals have been filed with the Tokyo High Court, including one for Chizuo Matsumoto, who founded Aum and asked to be known as Shoko Asahara. Lawyers for Matsumoto had called for an end to legal proceedings against their client on grounds he was not fit physically or psychologically.
However, a judge with the Tokyo High Court interviewed Matsumoto in December and declared he was fit to stand trial. Still, no decision has been made on when the appeals trial is to start.