Media watch: What is behind mass killer Satoshi Uematsu’s change of heart to pursue a retrial?

Artist’s rendering of Satoshi Uematsu at his 2020 trial

On April 28, Mainichi Shimbun reported that Satoshi Uematsu, the 32-year-old man convicted in 2020 of killing 19 people at a facility for the disabled in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, had applied to the Yokohama District Court for a retrial. Mainichi’s scoop, as it has been called, was quickly picked up by other media who looked around for a motive, because two years ago he had rejected his lawyer’s decision to appeal his death penalty sentence, thus giving the impression that he accepted both the verdict and the sentence. The application for retrial, which the Yokohama District Court is now studying, thus came as a complete surprise, and one that has so far had no explanation.

One of the first persons the media contacted was Hiroyuki Shinoda, the editor of the monthly magazine So and one of the journalists who was in close contact with Uematsu during his trial. If anyone could shed light on Uematsu’s motives for changing his mind and pursuing a retrial it would be Shinoda, but as he explained in detail in a May 2 post for Yahoo! News, he hasn’t been in touch with Uematsu since the end of the trial in the spring of 2020, though not for want of trying. Though the two haven’t subsequently communicated directly, he has been trying to find a lawyer who might take his case in order to apply for a retrial, but has been unsuccessful, so he was just as shocked as the rest of the media when he read the Mainichi article. “Somehow,” wrote Shinoda, “he had found another route to apply for a retrial.” Consequently, Shinoda had nothing to say to the dozens of reporters who called him up following the Mainichi scoop, which isn’t to say he didn’t have an opinion about it.

At the moment, he says, he doesn’t know who is representing Uematsu, and then goes on to explain his own efforts between March 2020, when Uematsu decided to forego an appeal, and June 2020, when he lost touch with him. He says that once a death sentence is finalized, the condemned is not permitted to have visits with anyone except family and lawyers who are handling the person’s case, and since Uematsu refused to appeal his sentence he basically has had no visitors except family, whom Shinoda doesn’t talk about anyway. An exception to this rule is “acquaintances” (chijin), but they have to be approved by both the prisoner and the prison authorities. Shinoda is famous for his reporting on suspected and convicted killers, especially those on death row. In past cases, he has continued to meet with such people while they were on death row in order to document their crimes and thoughts. However, in Uematsu’s case he has been repeatedly denied access, and that seems to be the decision of the Tokyo Detention Center, where Uematsu is being held. 

Shinoda describes going to the TDC on June 19, 2020, with a lawyer who agreed to talk to Uematsu. The idea was not to convince him to apply for a retrial but simply to explain the possibilities and procedures with the idea that Uematsu might change his mind once he had time to think. They applied for a meeting at the TDC office and waited one hour for a decision. Their request was rejected, which Shinoda said he didn’t expect, thus causing him to wonder what Uematsu’s “situation” was, since he learned that the rejection was made without any consultation with Uematsu himself. He also found out that another visitor, an editor from the manga publication Jitsuwa Knuckles, had been rejected. Uematsu had been writing a series of sci-fi comics for the magazine from jail. Since the editor could not meet with Uematsu, he did not receive the next contribution, so the series effectively ended then. Reflecting back on that time, Shinoda said he probably should have been more aggressive in trying to gain a meeting with Uematsu, but it was at the height of the initial COVID pandemic and thus, he thought, unavoidable. Since even letters from death row are greatly restricted, Shinoda attempted to keep in nominal contact with Uematsu by sending him cash, since inmates are allowed to reply to cash gifts with letters of thanks. So for 2 years Shinoda has sent money, all the while trying to arrange for meetings, which were always rejected by the TDC.

As to the reason behind Uematsu’s change of heart, Shinoda doesn’t really give an overt opinion, though he does endeavor to explain the probable background of Uematsu’s decision. When the trial ended with a conviction and death sentence, Uematsu rejected his lawyers’ somewhat automatic appeal. In such cases, the condemned prisoner’s execution can be carried out relatively soon since there is no appeal process holding it up. In the past two years, Shinoda thinks, Uematsu has had plenty of time to ponder this possibility the further he gets from the drama of the trial, and may have decided he’s not ready to die just yet, so he may have brought in a lawyer who could apply for a retrial just for the purpose of postponing the inevitable. That, in fact, seems to have been Shinoda’s own thinking when he was still seeing Uematsu. Between March 31, 2020, when the death sentence was finalized, and April 7, 2020, when Uematsu was transferred to TDC, Shinoda met with him almost every day while looking for a lawyer who would take up the case. In the meantime, families of Uematsu’s victims had assembled a civil suit against Uematsu, who, in lieu of conventional legal representation, was responding to the suit on his own without a lawyer. It wasn’t until Shinoda read the Mainichi scoop that he realized he has since acquired one. 

Of course, the biggest question is, What is Uematsu’s motivation for the retrial? When he was still talking to Shinoda, Uematsu had explained that he refused to appeal his sentence because he felt he “could not escape the death penalty,” and therefore an appeal was just a waste of everyone’s time, especially since he felt he had sufficiently explained his actions regarding the killings in court. He was determined to cover “7 matters” during the trial, and convinced his lawyers to ask him questions during his testimony that would enable him to discuss these matters. However, when he learned, during the trial, that his lawyers were trying to make the case that he was not “criminally responsible” for his actions due to diminished mental capacity, he strongly objected, and announced that he would dismiss them. Shinoda convinced him at the time not to do so, but rather explain in court that he disagreed with his lawyers’ contention, which he did. Shinoda emphasizes that he was against Uematsu’s refusal to appeal his sentence. 

What Uematsu couldn’t predict at the time was the isolation he would endure in prison afterwards, or so Shinoda thinks. During his 3 years of detention prior to the start of the trial, he had few visitors and, apparently, felt starved for human interaction. Once Shinoda starting visiting him regularly, he was like a person “possessed,” always finding ways to explain and justify his actions on the day of the killings. He never liked to talk about his past, only about the case, but he did change considerably by the time the trial started. When Shinoda first met him, he refused to apologize for the killings, but later he apologized in court and acknowledged the feelings of the bereaved families, even if he still sought justification for what he did. In essence, he thrived on the attention, whether it was from Shinoda or any other media outlet, but after his sentence was handed down everything changed, including his attitude, apparently. After the sentencing, only Shinoda, another non-fiction writer, and a Kanagawa Shimbun reporter visited him before he was shut away at TDC. 

Shinoda doesn’t say whether he thinks the Yokohama District Court will approve a retrial, and if they don’t then the whole question of Uematsu’s motives are moot. Journalist Ryu Honma, speaking about the matter on a web talk show, “Hitotsuki Mansatsu,” said that usually courts don’t authorize retrials unless there’s new evidence in a case, but at any rate, the only outcome Uematsu’s new lawyer could possibly hope for would be a lessening of his sentence from capital punishment to life in prison. Shinoda is under no illusions about Uematsu’s guilt or responsibility. He is obviously opposed to the death penalty and sees his own responsibility as a journalist to be one of finding out what made Uematsu carry out such a horrible act. In the end, the killer came to terms with what he did and accepted his fate, but all those seemingly endless, lonely days in his cell, hearing those footsteps outside his door every morning and wondering if they were coming for him, had to have an effect. He may have simply decided to go for a retrial if only to make those footsteps that much more tolerable for a short while. 

For more background on the crime and the trial, check here and here.

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2 Responses to Media watch: What is behind mass killer Satoshi Uematsu’s change of heart to pursue a retrial?

  1. Prior to his trial Uemastu was diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder. I have been wondering whether he requested a retrial because if the diagnosis is correct he wants the attention, and a retrial gives him that attention in a way that is ‘bigger’ than simply appealing his sentence. He will ultimately want or need to be seen as ‘the great slayer of disabled people’, if he isn’t that then he has done nothing whether or attention, but a retrial if granted, where he would be found guilty again, gives he more attention.

    • philipbrasor says:

      That sounds about right. When the trial was taking place he seemed to thrive at all the media attention and after his sentence started he missed that attention. The retrial, if granted, will at least bring it back, though probably not at the intensity he would like.

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