Sunday 19 November 2017

Remorse key to fate of murderer

Despite the overwhelming evidence, a cocky Richard Hinds lied repeatedly under oath, writes Paul Murphy in Tokyo

Paul Murphy

It turned out to be an accurate prediction. Three weeks before James Blackston was sentenced to three years in jail for assaulting a friend of murdered Irish student Nicola Furlong and another woman, his lawyer sat in a wood-panelled office in central Tokyo discussing his client and the Japanese justice system.

"Of course, judges give a lenient sentence when the defendant confesses his crime," Tsutomu Nakamura said.

"Will this go against your client because he is is not confessing?" I asked.

"Yes, if there is a guilty verdict, yes. If it's a guilty verdict the sentence will be three years." If he had confessed, he would have gotten two to two- and-a-half years.

And so it came to pass. Blackston, a professional dancer from Los Angeles, got three years.

It's a mystery why he didn't confess. Fewer than one in 700 defendants facing a Japanese court wins a not-guilty verdict. Blackston was never going to be one of those because his assault on the Irish woman as she slumped unconscious in the back of a taxi was captured by the taxi's security camera.

At 23, Blackston is still a young man. An extra year in prison means a lot at his age. And the same goes for 19-year-old musician Richard Hinds, from Memphis, Tennessee. What was he thinking by pleading not guilty?

Japanese judges expect defendants to be remorseful. But despite the overwhelming evidence, Hinds, a devout Christian, lied repeatedly

under oath, denying his crime, as if "thou shalt not bear false witness" was a slogan for him rather than a commandment.

However, when Hinds told the court on the last day of his trial that "I have never been in a room with so much tension in my life", he was probably telling the truth.

Last Tuesday, as we waited for the judges to arrive to deliver their verdict, the tension in Tokyo District Court number 416 could have been cut with the proverbial knife.

At 3pm, Richard Hinds was brought into the courtroom in handcuffs. Angela Furlong was rocking back and forth, staring at the man who murdered her daughter, her struggle to retain composure written all over her face. Andrew Furlong's eyes were clenched shut, gripping a locket containing a tightly rolled £20stg note he gave Nicola the last time he saw her alive. He later found it unspent in her Japanese apartment.

At 3.02pm, Hinds' parents, Claude and Vivian arrived. Vivian smiled at her youngest son. At 3.04pm, a court official called to the prison guards flanking Hinds, "kaijou shite kudasai, unlock him please".

At 3.05pm, the judges arrived, lined up, bowed and sat down. Hinds was ordered to the witness stand and the presiding judge read the verdict – "Guilty" and sentenced to five to 10 years with labour.

The Furlongs started to look more relaxed. They said later they weren't happy with the prison term but it's what they had been told to expect.

If the man most directly affected by the verdict was concerned, he didn't show it. Cocky in court and apparently callous to the grief that he was causing the Furlong family with his disproven lies about their daughter, he never acted like a man facing a long prison stretch in a foreign land.

For his final day in court, he had spruced up with a haircut and a handkerchief in the breast pocket of his charcoal grey suit. He looked like someone going to a wedding.

Instead he was off to jail. As he was led out in handcuffs, his father looked at him and said, "We love you, we'll be in touch". More collateral damage from a senseless murder.

Richard Hinds has another eight days to decide whether to appeal – his friend James Blackston decided to appeal straight after receiving his three-year sentence. Unlike Blackston's lawyers, who are working pro bono, for free, Hinds' defence team is being paid, so money could be a factor in delaying his decision about any appeal.

More likely, though, he may believe that his five to 10-year sentence is the best he can get. Though it has been reported that Hinds couldn't have been given the death penalty or life imprisonment because he is under 20 and therefore a minor in Japan, in fact, both of those options are open to the court for defendants over 18.

While the death penalty was always a virtual impossibility because Hinds is not a multiple murderer, life imprisonment or a life sentence commuted to a 10 to 15-year term were possibilities.

Andrew Furlong believes Hinds will not appeal. "I would say they are happier with the sentence than we are because five to 10 – we were wanting more. Why rock the boat?" he said.

Whether Hinds will serve beyond five years is up to him. Good behaviour combined with remorse means he could be out after five years. Remorse is key, but as the judge who delivered the verdict said, "he has showed no remorse". Hinds did use the word 'sorry' in his trial. Referring to the Furlongs, he said, "I feel very sorry for their loss," the kind of phrase people use at funerals when shaking hands with the bereaved. It was as if Hinds had no responsibility for "their loss".

If he continues to show no remorse, he could serve 10 years, minus 120 days for time already served. He is now in Kosuge prison but if he decides not to appeal, he will almost certainly be sent straight to Fuchu prison to serve his sentence, probably on April 1, his 20th birthday.

Massive and immaculately tidy, Fuchu prison in the western suburbs of Tokyo is a typical Japanese prison, very tough and very rule-bound. New arrivals have to study the prison rule book, and according to previous inmates, there are hundreds of rules including regulations on how to sit, wash, sleep, talk, eat and walk. Prisoners are not allowed to speak freely, and are not allowed to speak at all during work time. Shouting can lead to a spell in 'solitary', so can sleeping with a blanket over your head – prisoners' faces have to be visible even when asleep – and so too could failing to march in the correct way. Prisoners don't walk in Japan, they march.

Because guards have total control, there hasn't been a prison riot for decades. "In UK and US prisons you will hear about prisoners fighting, you will hear different types of dangerous incidents, you don't hear about those inside of Japanese prisons," said Matt Wilson, a professor of law at Wyoming University who has visited Fuchu prison as part of his academic work.

Fuchu has one huge exercise yard, but the emphasis for the 2,300 prisoners is on work, not exercise. Inmates work seven hours a day, six days a week. There are large workshops in Fuchu where inmates make furniture for nursing homes and kindergartens, print greeting cards and magazines, assemble toys, produce women's clothes, spray paint cars and do dozens of other tasks.

"The workshop reminded me of the factory floor of a Japanese company because it was just spotless, very orderly and regimented with people just going about doing their jobs," said Professor Wilson.

That the man who murdered Nicola will suffer tough prison conditions is some consolation to her parents, but Andrew Furlong says his focus is no longer on Hinds. "I don't want to ever hear his name mentioned ever again, he could drop dead in the morning and it won't bother me."

The family arrived home last Thursday and told reporters they planned to sue the Keio Plaza Hotel in Tokyo which allowed Hinds to bring Nicola to his room even though she was unconscious and not a registered guest.

Under Japan's Hotel Business Law, every hotel is obliged to keep a guest register with a record of the name, address and occupation of those who stay the night. Failure to comply is considered an administrative breach potentially punishable by a fine of just 5000 yen (€41). The hotel denies that it broke any regulation.

Establishing negligence would be difficult, said a Japanese lawyer who asked not to be named. "Even if the violation [of the Hotel Business Law] was clear, it would be hard to prove there was a legal and reasonable causal relation between the violation and the murder," he said.

After putting things on hold since last May waiting for justice for Nicola, the Furlongs now face trying to restart their lives.

"I will try my best, because I have family and friends and they will pull me along, they won't allow me to wallow," said Angela Furlong last week.

"It is like every family that loses somebody," agreed Andrew, "you have to start somewhere, get off the ground, try and get back into life as best you can."

But, as Nicola's younger sister, Andrea, put it: "Life will never be the same, it will never be what it was when we had Nicola here."

Irish Independent

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