Japan: This elderly man with Alzheimer’s killed his granddaughter. He says he doesn’t remember

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 Japan: This elderly man with Alzheimer's killed his granddaughter.  He says he doesn't remember

In a court in western Japan Last month Susumu Tomizawa, 88, admitted killing his granddaughter Tomomi, 16, almost two years ago – but said he doesn’t remember doing it.

Tomizawa has Alzheimer’s, a progressive and irreversible neurological disease that destroys neurons and shrinks brain regions. In court, his lawyers argued he should not face criminal charges because his illness causes dementia, a condition characterized by multiple cognitive deficits including memory loss.

“He was mentally ill at the time due to dementia and drinking alcohol… and therefore pleaded not guilty,” they said.

But the court in Fukui City had a different opinion.

On May 31, Tomizawa was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for murder.

The case shocked many in Japan — an aging nation where the number of elderly people with dementia is rising.

The trial, which was livestreamed from the court, was closely watched and drew sympathy from many, who expressed sympathy for Tomizawa and the family’s loss of Tomomi.

stabbed

The court heard that Tomizawa and Tomomi lived at his home in Fukui City.

On the night of September 9, 2020, they got into an argument that resulted in the teenager’s death.

Tomizawa recalled drinking heavily that night. Angry and drunk, he took a 17-centimeter kitchen knife and entered Tomomi’s bedroom, where he repeatedly stabbed her in the neck, the court heard last month.

The alarm was raised when Tomizawa called his eldest son and said he found Tomomi’s bloodied body, the court heard. Shortly thereafter, the police arrived and arrested the elderly man.

Tomizawa’s mental state was the focus of his trial, as doctors, lawyers and judges debated whether or not he knowingly killed his granddaughter.

Doctors assessing his condition insisted he had a motive for murder. “His actions were purposeful and consistent with his intent to kill,” forensic psychiatrist Hiroki Nakagawa told the court.

Prosecutors said the elderly man, despite his illness, was able to control his actions and “possessed the ability to judge right and wrong.”

In its decision, the court recognized Tomizawa’s Alzheimer’s but said he understood the weight of his actions. “After careful consideration and consultation with the defendant, we have [made] careful judgement,” said Judge Yoshinobu Kawamura.

“The defendant was in a state of mental exhaustion at the time of the offence, and was having great difficulty in judging right or wrong, or dissuading himself from the offence, but he was not in a state where he would not be able to do so.”

sickness of the mind

According to experts, Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia in older people.

“It’s a degenerative brain disease,” said Jason Frizzell, a psychologist who specializes in criminal justice. “In virtually all cases, a person’s abilities gradually decline over time.”

The disease attacks the brain and the memory loss worsens as the disease progresses. Symptoms such as paranoia, restlessness, confusion and even outbursts of violence are likely, said Frizzell, who is also a professor at Arizona State University.

“Of course not every patient [display] the same symptoms. The situational context can also play a role in aggression — whether a patient is afraid of places or people they don’t recognize,” he said.

Fast facts on Alzheimer's disease

Jacob Rajesh, senior forensic psychiatrist at Promises Healthcare facility in Singapore, said in cases of rapidly progressing Alzheimer’s disease “it will be difficult to give an accurate account of what actually happened.”

“There’s also the question of legal capacity — is a person fit enough to testify on the witness stand and plead guilty or not guilty?” he said.

Criminal offenses involving people with dementia are also extremely complex, experts said.

“How much of their behavior can we reasonably explain in terms of the disease itself, as opposed to other motivations like anger or retaliation,” Frizzell said. He also highlighted moral and ethical value judgments.

“How can we effectively or reasonably prosecute someone who could be completely debilitated by their illness in just a few years?

“Prisons full of older prisoners”

Japan has one of the largest elderly populations in the world. According to government records, more than 20% of residents are over 65, and the number of Japanese centenarians is increasing.

Dementia mainly affects older people and more than 4.6 million people in Japan are believed to be living with the disease. Experts predict the number will increase significantly as the country continues to age rapidly.

Violent crimes committed by Japanese dementia patients are rare, but in a case similar to Tomizawa’s in 2014, a 72-year-old man with dementia strangled an 82-year-old woman to death in a hospice. Due to his condition, he received a reduced sentence of three years.

A record 1,500 people in Japan are at least 100 years old — and they're likely female

“Prisons in Japan are full of elderly inmates suffering from dementia,” said Koichi Hamai, a criminal justice expert and law professor at Ryukoku University in Kyoto. “The number of elderly prisoners is increasing and we need to take various measures [address it].”

Tomomi had lived with her grandfather in Fukui, one of Japan’s most sparsely populated prefectures, where about one in three residents is over 65, according to the government.

Details from her life were scant, but observers highlighted issues such as aggression and domestic violence that Alzheimer’s patients and their frustrated caregivers often face.

“People with dementia are known to act against the people who care for them, who are closest to them,” said Rajesh, the forensic psychiatrist.

“Patients [like Tomizawa] I need a lot of supervision and management to be at home and it wasn’t immediately apparent that he had any.

CNN’s Emiko Jozuka and Kathleen Benoza contributed coverage.

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