A Japanese court sentenced a woman to an eight-year prison term on Tuesday for parental neglect that led to the death of her 5-year-old daughter last year in a high-profile child abuse case.
The Tokyo District Court said Yuri Funato, 27, was aware of her then husband's abuse of Yua, who died in March last year due to sepsis following the onset of pneumonia, but she took no action. The court noted that Funato had suffered psychological abuse from her former husband as well.
"(Her actions) deserve strong blame," Presiding Judge Minoru Morishita said, referring to Funato not giving medical treatment to her daughter and not feeding her adequately since around late January last year.
According to the ruling, the girl had become extremely skinny and malnourished due to strict diet restrictions imposed on her prior to her fatal illness.
"One can only imagine the pain, sadness and hopelessness" the girl must have felt at not being saved by her beloved mother, the judge said.
In the trial, prosecutors said Funato prioritized her relationship with her then husband and Yua's 34-year-old stepfather, Yudai Funato, over her daughter's life. The couple are now divorced.
"She failed to do a parent's bare minimum of protecting her child by contacting a medical facility or her own parents," they said and demanded an 11-year prison term.
The girl's death on March 2 last year in Tokyo's Meguro Ward attracted nationwide attention and prompted Japan to enact revised laws in June this year, banning parents and other guardians from physically punishing children and strengthening the ability of child welfare centers to intervene in cases when abuse is suspected.
The incident was followed by the death of 10-year-old Mia Kurihara in Chiba Prefecture in January due to suspected physical abuse by her father.
However, with more than 150,000 cases of consultations and reports of child abuse a year and 100,000 cases of domestic violence, authorities are finding it difficult to take action in a timely fashion.
In the latest abuse case, Funato did not take Yua to the hospital in late February last year when her daughter's condition seriously deteriorated following abuse the girl had allegedly been subjected to by her stepfather.
Defense lawyers for the woman argued she was powerless to stop her then husband as she had been the target of his "relentless psychological abuse," and had asked that she be given no more than a five-year prison term.
The court acknowledged the psychological abuse Funato suffered under her former husband but said it "cannot be a factor that would greatly reduce her responsibility."
"She ultimately acted of her own volition," the judge said.
Still, the court opted to hand down a shorter jail term than what prosecutors demanded, citing Funato's deep remorse about her act leading to her daughter's death and her responsibility to care for her younger son.
Yudai Funato has also been indicted on charges of assaulting the child and negligence resulting in her death. His trial will start on Oct. 1.
The mother had previously admitted to parental neglect resulting in Yua's death but said she had to obey her husband's orders to stop her daughter from being harmed.
Speaking at a news conference after the court session, lay judges said it was a "very difficult judgement" to determine the extent to which the domestic violence suffered by the woman herself impacted her neglectful behavior as a mother.
Yua wrote messages such as "Please forgive me" on a sheet of paper, which prosecutors regarded as pleas for her mistreatment to stop.
The prosecutors cited the message as evidence the couple were equally responsible for the young girl's death. The court, however, acknowledged Funato's testimony that she had written it together with her daughter so that the husband would not get angrier.
"It was unbearable imagining (Yua's) pain and suffering," said a supplementary judge, while a lay judge in his 70s said, "As a member of the jury, I did my best to think without getting emotional."
A male supplementary judge expressed hope that because Yua has a little brother, the mother will finish serving her jail term and move on in life.
A lawyer for Funato told reporters that her client seemed to have accepted that the jury understood her defense, and did not seem dissatisfied with the sentence.