KAGOSHIMA - A 71-year-old man was acquitted Friday of murder-robbery at the Kagoshima District Court, the first time a not-guilty verdict has been handed down in a lay judge trial in which prosecutors had demanded capital punishment.
Masahiro Shirahama, an unemployed man from Kagoshima, was on trial for the murder of an elderly couple who were killed at their home.
Presiding Judge Masamichi Hirashima said in the ruling: "There is no evidence directly proving the defendant was the perpetrator. Therefore, we cannot accept the prosecutors' arguments."
Tadashi Kuranoshita, 91, and his wife Hatsue, 87, were beaten to death with a metal shovel on the evening of June 18 or early on June 19 last year at their home in Kagoshima.
Prosecutors claimed Shirahama committed the crime after he used up the pension payment he had received and became desperate for money. The defendant had insisted on his innocence since his arrest.
Under the lay judge system, there have been five cases in which prosecutors asked for capital punishment. Friday's ruling was the first acquittal. The case had attracted public attention since it was the only one among the five in which the defendant had pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors lacked concrete evidence, such as a confession or eyewitnesses, so the main dispute was over circumstantial evidence, which included fingerprints and DNA found at the victims' home.
Prosecutors had claimed 11 fingerprints and palm prints found on the window that they say the perpetrator entered by and on a bureau belonged to the defendant. They also said DNA matching the defendant's was found on a window screen.
The ruling recognized the DNA analysis as accurate and concluded the fingerprints on the window belonged to the defendant.
However, it said: "While it can be concluded the defendant touched the screen, it cannot be assumed he did so intending to break into the victims' home. The prosecutors also failed to clarify the situation surrounding his touching of the window."
"Doubt remains over whether sufficient verification had been conducted," the ruling continued, addressing the prefectural police's scientific evaluations.
The prosecutors had said the defendant entered the house intending to rob the couple. But the ruling said: "There were places that had not been disturbed, and there was cash that could have been easily found. Thus we cannot conclude the motive of the crime was to steal money or other valuables."
Instead, the ruling suggested a grudge might have been behind the killings, as the victims were hit on the face and head more than 100 times.
The trial lasted 40 days from the selection of lay judges to the final verdict, the longest so far among lay judge trials. Although the court sent summons to 295 lay judge candidates, 221 gave various reasons to decline.
During 10 days of the trial, 27 people were questioned as witnesses, and on-the-spot inspections were also made.
-The Yomiuri Shimbun/Asia News Network