It started with a family quarrel and ended with tragedy: a teenage girl was stabbed to death by her elderly grandfather in a case that horrified the country.
Susumu Tomizawa, 88, admitted to killing his granddaughter Tomomi, 16, nearly two years ago in a court in western Japan last month, but said he didn’t remember it.
Tomizawa suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, a degenerative and irreversible neurological ailment that causes neurons to die and brain areas to shrink. His lawyers argued in court that he should not be charged with a crime since his sickness causes dementia, which is characterised by various cognitive deficiencies such as memory loss.
“He pleaded not guilty since he was insane at the time owing to dementia and alcohol consumption,” they added.
However, the Fukui City Court disagreed.
Tomizawa was scheduled to be sentenced to four and a half years in jail for murder on May 31.
The case surprised many people in Japan, which is an ageing country with an increasing incidence of elderly dementia patients.
The trial, which was live-streamed from the courtroom, received a lot of attention and compassion from people who felt bad for Tomizawa and her family because of Tomomi’s death.
Death by stabbing
The court heard that Tomizawa and Tomomi had been living at his home in Fukui city.
They got into an argument on the night of September 9, 2020, which culminated in the teen’s death.
Tomizawa recalls a night of heavy drinking. He entered Tomomi’s bedroom, armed with a 17-centimeter (almost 7-inch) long kitchen knife, and repeatedly stabbed her in the neck, the court heard last month.
The alarm was aroused when Tomizawa called his eldest son, claiming to have discovered Tomomi’s bloodied body, according to the court. Soon later, police arrived on the scene and arrested the old man.
Tomizawa’s mental health was a major point of contention during his trial, as doctors, lawyers, and judges argued whether he killed his granddaughter willfully.
Doctors who examined his condition insisted that he had a motive for murder. “Hiroki Nakagawa, a forensic psychiatrist, testified in court that his acts were deliberate and compatible with his desire to kill.”
Despite his sickness, prosecutors stated the old man was able to control his conduct and “had the ability to judge right and wrong.”
The court acknowledged Tomizawa’s Alzheimer’s disease in its decision, but said he was aware of the consequences of his acts. “We [formed] a thoughtful ruling after extensive examination and dialogue with the defendant,” stated judge Yoshinobu Kawamura.
“At the time of the crime, the defendant was in a condition of mental weariness, and he had considerable difficulty discerning right from wrong or dissuading himself from committing the crime — yet he was not unable to do so.”
Illness of the mind
According to specialists, Alzheimer’s disease is the most frequent kind of dementia that affects the elderly.
Jason Frizzell, a psychologist who specialises in criminal court cases, described it as “a degenerative brain disease.” “In almost all circumstances, a person’s talents deteriorate gradually over time.”
As the disease advances, it damages the brain, causing memory loss. Symptoms such as paranoia, anxiety, confusion, and even violent outbursts are likely, according to Frizzell, an Arizona State University professor.
“Naturally, not every patient will exhibit the same set of symptoms. Aggression may be influenced by the situational environment, such as when a patient is afraid of unfamiliar places or people “he stated
According to Jacob Rajesh, a leading forensic psychiatrist at Singapore’s Promises Healthcare facility, “it will be impossible to produce an accurate narrative of what actually happened” in situations of quickly developing Alzheimer’s.
“There’s also the issue of fitness to stand trial,” he said. “Is a person fit enough to testify in court and plead guilty or not guilty?”
Experts say that crimes involving dementia people are often exceedingly complicated.
“How much of their behaviour can we legitimately explain through the sickness itself vs additional causes like anger or retribution?” Frizzell said. Moral and ethical value judgments were also stressed by him.
“How do we successfully or fairly punish someone who may be completely incapacitated by their sickness in a few years? Is it possible to be empathetic toward a convicted dementia patient while yet upholding the community’s sense of justice?”
‘There are a lot of old people in prisons.’ – Japan has one of the world’s largest elderly populations. According to government figures, more than 20% of its people are above the age of 65, and the number of Japanese centenarians is on the rise.
Dementia primarily affects the elderly, and it is estimated that more than 4.6 million people in Japan suffer from it. According to experts, the number will skyrocket as the country continues to age fast.
Violent crimes performed by Japanese dementia patients are uncommon, however in 2014, a 72-year-old man with dementia strangled an 82-year-old woman to death in a hospice, a case comparable to Tomizawa’s. Due of his medical condition, he was given a three-year sentence.
“There are a lot of older convicts with dementia in Japanese prisons,” said Koichi Hamai, a criminal justice expert and law professor at Ryukoku University in Kyoto. “The number of elderly inmates is growing, and we need to take a variety of methods to [handle it].”
Tomomi had been living with her grandfather in Fukui, one of Japan’s least populous prefectures, where one in every three people, according to government statistics, is over 65 years old.
Although the details of their lives were scant, observers noted that Alzheimer’s patients and their dissatisfied caretakers frequently confronted challenges such as hostility and domestic violence.
“People caring for dementia patients are known to act out against those closest to them,” said Rajesh, the forensic psychiatrist.
“To stay at home, patients [like Tomizawa] require a lot of monitoring and care, and it wasn’t immediately clear that he had any.”