A former U.S. civilian base worker accused of raping and killing a 20-year-old woman in Okinawa in April last year denied intent to murder on Thursday at the opening of his lay judge trial.
Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, 33, however, admitted at the Naha District Court to the charges of rape resulting in death and abandoning the victim's body.
The murder case has sparked public anger and strengthened anti-U.S. base sentiment in Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan and has seen a spate of crimes committed by American troops or military-linked personnel.
According to the indictment, Shinzato assaulted the woman for the purpose of raping her on a road in Uruma in central Okinawa around 10 p.m. on April 28, 2016. After hitting her on the head with a bar, he stabbed her in the neck with a knife so she would not resist, killing her as a result.
The skeletal remains of the woman, who was taking a walk at the time of the crime, were found on May 19 of that year in a wooded area in the village of Onna, north of Uruma, based on Shinzato's statement.
He was working at an internet company within the premises of the U.S. Kadena Air Base in Okinawa at the time of the incident after serving as a U.S. Marine from 2007 to 2014, according to his lawyers and the U.S. Defense Department.
In the hearing, Shinzato said he planned to let the woman go after raping her, denying any murderous intent.
His defense counsel said, "He did not stab her during the assault. He wrung her neck but did not try to kill her and there is a possibility that the woman died as a result of falling and hitting her head on the ground."
Meanwhile, prosecutors claimed Shinzato had intent to murder her, referring to multiple stabbing of the victim's neck. They also said it was a premeditated crime as he prepared a suitcase to transport the body and changed his clothes at a hotel after the incident.
As Shinzato barely speaks Japanese, an interpreter is being used at the trial. However, he refused to answer any questions from both his defense counsel and the prosecutors during the hearing in the afternoon, exercising his right to remain silent.
During his service as a Marine, Shinzato engaged in material procurement and instructed shooting. He also received an award for his contribution to the war against terrorism.
Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, the commanding general of U.S. Marine Corps Forces in Japan, held a press conference at Camp Courtney in Okinawa on Thursday morning.
"I still speak for all Americans I am still shocked and I (find it) hard to understand how anyone could commit such a crime," he said.
Shinzato had a family in Okinawa at the time of the incident but got divorced afterward.
Under the lay judge system, local citizens will hear the case alongside professional judges.
Shinzato had requested his trial be held outside Okinawa, saying it was unlikely a fair lay judge trial could be held there during the strong anti-U.S. base sentiment. But the Supreme Court rejected the request in August last year.
A ruling will be handed down Dec. 1.
The victim's father, who attended the first hearing, is scheduled to state his views in the trial.
The incident reignited talks to review the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, which has been criticized by locals who see it as overly protective of U.S. service members and civilian base workers if they are implicated in crimes.
In January, Tokyo and Washington signed a pact to effectively remove legal protection over some U.S. military base workers, hoping the move will deter base-linked crimes in Okinawa.
In Okinawa, a total of 576 heinous crimes, including murders, robberies and rapes, have been committed by U.S. military-related personnel between May 1972, when the prefecture reverted to Japanese control following postwar U.S. occupation, and last December, according to data from the prefectural government and local police.
Following the gang rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen in 1995, a massive rally -- which organizers estimated was attended by 85,000 -- was held to call for the removal of the U.S. military base from Okinawa.
A series of accidents involving U.S. military aircraft have also fueled anti-U.S. base sentiment on the island, with such incidents totaling 709 during the same period.
Nearly 500 people lined up in the morning to get a ticket to observe the high-profile trial.
"I came here to keep the defendant's figure and voice in my heart so I would never forget the case," said Makoto Yasu, 52, from the town of Yonabaru, Okinawa.