Ministry eyes end to statute on murder

Report weighs victim calls for no limitations

Kyodo News

The Justice Ministry proposed in its report Friday that the statute of limitations on murder and other serious crimes be abolished in line with what it calls the current public demand that perpetrators not be allowed to evade punishment.

While the ministry may present the proposal following further examination to its legislative council, which plays a key role in drawing up legislation related to the judicial system, if the statute is abolished, this will bring a major change to the legal system.

Justice Minister Eisuke Mori said that while further consideration is needed, he hopes to present the proposal “as early as possible” to the ministry’s legislative council, an expert panel that plays a key role in drawing up judicial legislation.

The ministry also said in its report that it “may be constitutionally allowed” even if the envisioned abolishment is applied to crimes that have already taken place but have yet to face the expiration of the current statute.

While many details are left open, the report was released to wrap up a six-month in-house study that came amid increased calls by relatives of victims of unresolved murders to abolish the statute.

Such calls and other factors “reflect the public notion of justice that perpetrators who claimed a life . . . should face special and harsh treatment that is different in quality from that for other criminals,” the report said.

It also noted it is the public recognition that no limit should be set in pursuing criminals who take people’s lives and that the truth of the crimes should be made as clear as possible.

“We acknowledge the need to review the statute of limitations system,” the report said.

The proposal comes after the statute of limitations for capital crimes, including murder, was extended to 25 years from 15 in 2005 under the revised Code of Criminal Procedure. The statute for robbery resulting in injury was extended to 15 years from 10 years.

The United States and Britain have no statute of limitation periods for first-degree murder.

But the report is likely to draw opposition from the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, which has strongly protested the abolishment and further extension of the statute on the grounds they will prevent sufficient defense activities.

In April, the ministry presented in its interim report four possible options that may be considered in reviewing the statute of limitations — abolishment, a further extension, a system whereby prosecutors can press charges based on DNA evidence even if culprits are unknown at the time of a crime, and a system to enable prosecutors to ask courts to suspend the statute when “certain solid evidence” exists.

In the latest report, the ministry rejected the third and fourth options as “inappropriate” to adopt, saying they cannot “fully respond” to the current public demand to bring serious offenders to justice.

Meanwhile, the report said it is “proper” to abolish the statute for serious crimes such as murder, and extend it for crimes that also claim lives but face less heavy punishments.

It also noted it is still necessary to further consider for what crimes the statute should be abolished or extended, how long it should be extended, how investigators should be kept involved and how evidence should be stored.

On adoption of the envisioned abolishment to cases that have already occurred, the report said it is theoretically possible, although currently extended statutes under the revised Code of Criminal Procedure have applied to cases that have only occurred after the revision.

Criminals should not be guaranteed constitutional protection if they dare to commit a crime knowing they could enjoy immunity from prosecution after the statute expires, the ministry said, adding it welcomes “cautious” discussions as opposition is expected to the ministry’s interpretation.

The statute of limitations, an idea Japan adopted from France in its law that became effective in 1882, is commonly believed to have been introduced because evidence can be scattered or lost over time, making it difficult to pinpoint a culprit. Another reason is that demands for harsh penalties can wane with time.

But proving crimes in court, even after many years, has become less challenging recently due to advances in criminal investigative technology, particularly DNA analysis, making it possible to preserve evidence over a long period of time.

In late February, relatives of murder victims, including 81-year-old Yoshiyuki Miyazawa, formed a group to press the state to abolish the statute for homicide, stressing they cannot accept that perpetrators are able to evade punishment no matter how much time passes.

Apparently taking into consideration such opinions, the ministry also admitted in its report that the argument that demands for harsh punishment can wane from the next of kin as well as from society “no longer applies.”

Miyazawa is a relative of a four-member family that was slain in their home in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward in 2000, a high-profile murder case.