A guilty verdict has been returned for the man accused of strangling Wexford student Nicola Furlong, with the Tokyo court sentencing American Richard Hinds to a maximum prison term of 10 years with labour.
Passing sentence, presiding judge Masaharu Ashizawa spoke for the nine-strong panel of judges and lay jurors saying Mr Hinds would serve at least five years and no more than 10 years for his “atrocious and vicious” crime.
“The defendant killed the victim using some kind of ligature, which he pressed around her neck with a considerable force for some time,” Judge Ashizawa said. “This act is atrocious and vicious in nature... Due to the proclivity of sentencing in (Japanese) juvenile crimes, we could not consider the necessity for capital punishment or a life sentence.”
The sentence is the maximum permissible in Japan as under Japanese law Hinds is considered a minor.
However, according to Hiroko Goto, an expert in juvenile law at Chiba University’s Law School, Hinds will serve his term in an adult prison rather than a juvenile correctional facility as he will come of age on April 1.
Mr Hinds showed little emotion as he left the court, turning to his parents in the public seating area and smiling.
“We love you Rich,” said his father, who, dressed in a black suit with a white handkerchief in the top pocket, was making a first appearance in the court.
“I love you too,” responded Hinds, who had shaved off his hair.
Reacting after the verdict was passed Nicola’s younger sister Andrea said she felt “absolutely disgusted”.
“I am so angry and so hurt,” she said.
Nicola’s father, Andrew, said the thought that Hinds could end up serving a sentence just two years longer than that handed down to Hinds’ friend James Blackston for his sexual assault of a college friend of Ms Furlong, was “disappointing” though not entirely unexpected.
“He got what we expected,” he said. “It was never going to be a hanging and they said five to 10 (years) so we hope its more than five and up to 10. But ... whatever happens to him from now on I’ve no interest. I don’t want to hear his name mentioned again.”
Nicola’s mother, Angela, called the outcome a “travesty”, but said most importantly, despite the defence team’s best efforts to blacken her daughter’s name, Nicola’s honour had been restored.
In handing down the sentence, Judge Ashizawa said a lack of remorse by Hinds and “irrational statements that had dishonoured the victim” had contributed to his “heavy” term. The absence of any previous record had also been an influencing factor, he added.
He also stressed that Ms Furlong was in no way to blame for what happened on the night of May 23, 2012, and early morning the following day.
“The victim is not to blame at all for what happened,” he said, adding that Ms Furlong and her friend were simply making their way from a concert to go for drinks on their way home.
Since the trial started on March 4, Hinds and his defence team had tried to show that Ms Furlong was directly to blame for what had happened.
She had, they claimed, caused her own downfall through a lethal combination of drugs and alcohol — even though the prosecution’s chief witness, forensics expert Dr Kenichi Yoshida who had performed Ms Furlong’s autopsy, had ruled out this possibility.
And the verdict read out by Judge Ashizawa yesterday concluded that the concentration in Ms Furlong’s blood of Alprazolam — the active ingredient in Xanax, prescribed for her by an Irish doctor — was still “well below” the normally prescribed range.
The defence’s calculations — which had suggested Ms Furlong had taken one of the prescribed 0.25mg Xanax anti-anxiety drugs on her way to a concert in Tokyo on May 23 — did nothing “to damage the credentials” of Dr Yoshida’s opinion, Judge Ashizawa said.
Nor, indeed, did the opinions of the defence’s chief witness Dr Marianne Hamel — an expert in forensics in the US, some of whose explanations had been “unnatural”.
Unlike Dr Yoshida, Dr Hamel could not conclude “definitively” from photographic evidence that some kind of ligature had caused Ms Furlong’s death, adding that equally hands could have been used.
Also unlike Dr Yoshida, Dr Hamel had not been able to examine the victim’s corpse, Judge Ashizawa said. The pale, 5-cm wide mark left on the victim’s neck did not match the American expert’s claim that a hand could have been used, according to the verdict.
Dr Hamel’s explanations were not enough to “sway opinion” with regard to Dr Yoshida’s findings, he said.
And Dr Yoshida’s “strong findings” had shown that the victim’s heart was still beating while she was being choked in room 1427 of the Keio Plaza Hotel on May 24 at some time after 3am: “Nicola Furlong had died of suffocation after strangulation,” the verdict read.
“Dr Yoshida said that death resulted from strong and extended pressure asserted on the neck.”
Even Dr Hamel “did not object to this point”.
Hinds’ claims that he tried to administer CPR on Ms Furlong were, in the end, natural enough, Judge Ashizawa said: “When he realised the magnitude of what he had done, it was natural that he take such life-saving measures.”
Hinds will likely serve time in Fuchu prison, in western Tokyo. With good behaviour, he could be released after serving five years of his sentence.
“We got her name cleared and that’s what we came here for,” said Andrew Furlong outside the court.
“I just want to go home,” said a tired looking Andrea. “I never want to come to Japan again.”
Angela Furlong added: “We know what type of a little girl Nicola is and she will always be a very, very special little girl to us.”
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