Three young men sit confined in an Okinawa jail, an ocean away from their hometowns in Texas and Georgia, possibly unaware that the brutal rape they are charged with committing against a Japanese girl has ignited a political firestorm between Japan and the United States.
To the folks back home, the two Marines, Pfc. Rodrico Harp, 21, and Pfc. Kendrick M. Ledet, 20, and Navy Seaman Marcus D. Gill, 22, are well-mannered young men.
Ledet, of Georgia, was a Boy Scout and church usher; Texan Gill took advanced-placement English and won a football scholarship.
Of the three, only Harp, also of Georgia, had a previous brush with the law, according to the Atlanta Constitution newspaper: He got probation for taking $5 from a junior high student when he was in high school.
But in Japan, where the rape has provoked the largest demonstrations against U.S. military bases in Okinawan history, the men were excoriated as "animals" by no less than U.S. Ambassador Walter Mondale in a meeting with Foreign Minister Yohei Kono.
Pictures of Ledet and Harp have been splashed on the front page of a sports tabloid with the banner headline "U.S. Military Devils."
And in an interview this week, Harp's attorney, Mitsunobu Matsunaga, related a disturbing account of three men out to buy sex and deciding on rape instead, because one of them did not have enough money.
"[Gill] said, 'It was just for fun,' " Matsunaga said.
The veil on Japan's most sensational case of a U.S. military crime in more than three decades will be lifted Nov. 7, when the men are to appear for their first hearing in district court in the city of Naha. The men will be tried by three judges; Japan does not have jury trials.
Harp will claim that he and Ledet did not rape the 12-year-old girl but assisted Gill in carrying out the crime, Matsunaga said.
Although Harp signed a statement to U.S. military investigators saying he had committed the rape, he is now denying it, the attorney said.
Under Japanese law, however, all three men could be found guilty of the Sept. 4 rape even if only one actually committed it, Matsunaga said. They would face sentences ranging from three years to life imprisonment.
Despite the national clamor here for better procedures to try suspects under Japanese law--the United States agreed Wednesday to give Japan early custody in rape and murder cases--Matsunaga and others say the U.S. military system typically imposes harsher penalties.
Rape convictions under Japanese law normally result in sentences of three to four years, but U.S. courts-martial for rape in Okinawa have typically carried a minimum sentence of 10 years, said Matsunaga, a Japanese attorney who has represented more than 300 U.S. servicemen on the southern island over the past 29 years.
"We want to try our [own] people so we can hold our people up as a model," said Col. A.J. Cunningham, top legal counsel for the U.S. forces in Japan.
Even so, the military justice system in general--under which a suspect's commander decides whether to bring charges and ultimately approves any penalty--has come under recent attack for being soft on sexual-assault crimes.
Critics say the military's closed proceedings encourage that trend.
Matsunaga's account of the Sept. 4 events are based on interviews with his client and on statements the three men gave to Japanese police after they were indicted and handed over to Japanese custody on Sept. 29.
The attorneys for Gill and Ledet declined to comment on the events of Sept. 4. U.S. military officials in Okinawa also declined to comment on the men's performance records or other details related to the case.
Matsunaga said that Gill, driving a rented white car, picked up Harp, Ledet and another serviceman about noon at the Camp Hansen Marine base for lunch. They drove around all afternoon, and when Gill began talking about rape, the fourth man asked to be dropped off, because he did not want to participate.
Matsunaga said Harp and Ledet had about $30 and wanted to pay for sex, but Gill vetoed the plan because he was broke. He said paid sex was "no fun" and proposed rape instead, Matsunaga continued.
The two Marines "didn't take it seriously, and they didn't agree to it," Matsunaga said, but they realized Gill was serious after he showed them he was prepared with duct tape and condoms.
About 8 p.m., the men saw a Japanese girl wearing a school uniform and carrying a bag of books walking along the street, the attorney said. They stopped the car, and Ledet pulled her inside, putting her into the back seat while Harp taped her mouth and eyes and hit her once. Matsunaga said Gill bound her hands and legs.
The three men drove to a secluded field about 20 minutes away, parked the car and got out. Gill--described by one acquaintance as a "tank," 6 feet tall and weighing 260 to 270 pounds--got into the back seat.
Matsunaga said Gill "violently" beat the struggling child, telling her to "let me do what I want to do."
Ledet and Harp went into the back seat afterward but, seeing how young she was, pulled back, Matsunaga said. The three threw her out of the car and left. They were arrested by U.S. military police two days later.
"I asked him why he didn't stop it or get away, but he cannot explain," Matsunaga said of Harp. "He was very scared. Maybe he didn't think it would be so serious because he didn't participate in the act itself."
The attorney described his client as remorseful and quiet, "weak-willed" and unfamiliar with the terms that will be used in the courtroom against him: "conspiracy," for instance, and "concerted action," or joint commission of a crime. Matsunaga said that, whenever Harp sees his attorney, he fearfully asks what his sentence might be.
Harp, a military vehicle driver, arrived in Okinawa in July. According to the Atlanta Constitution, his most noteworthy quality was the pride he took in being a member of his high school ROTC in Griffin, a Georgian town of 22,600.
"There aren't too many people who can say anything bad about that young man," his barber, Bennie Pears, told the newspaper.
Gill's hometown folks say pretty much the same thing about him: He was an all-district tackle from Woodville, a Texas town of 2,800 people notable for its county fairs and hunting season.
Gill served at Long Beach Naval Hospital from September, 1992, to March, 1994, and attended Field Medical Service School at Camp Pendleton from May, 1994, to September, 1994. He has worked as a nurse since arriving in Okinawa last October, a U.S. military spokeswoman said.
Gill's high school principal, Tom Harvey, told the Houston Chronicle that he was an "outstanding musician and a real fine student."
"It floors me that he would be involved in anything like that. We're all hoping this is not true, hoping this is a big mistake," Harvey said.
Ledet, a driver who arrived on Okinawa in June, is described in press accounts as "sweet and gentle" by his girlfriend and as someone who "always had a job" by a neighbor.
His attorney, Yutaka Arakawa, said he is physically fine but depressed about his confinement and inability to understand the Japanese around him. Arakawa has not informed Ledet of the political furor the rape has set off to enable him to approach the trial with a "pure" mind.
"He is reflecting that he's done a bad thing," Arakawa said.
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Basics on Japan's Court System
A look at the procedures in the Japanese court system:
* Charges: A criminal case goes to court after prosecutors bring formal charges, which must be filed within 23 days of the start of a suspect's interrogation.
* No jury: All but minor crimes, which are heard by summary courts, go to one of 50 district courts for trial. There is no jury.
* Length of trials: A trial usually takes several years, mainly because sessions are not held daily.
* Appeals: A defendant can appeal a district judge's verdict to one of eight high courts, then to the Supreme Court.
* Cameras: No cameras are allowed in courtrooms, except for two minutes before a defendant enters.
* Convictions: There is a 99% conviction rate in criminal cases that go to trial. Police almost always have either a confession or overwhelming evidence before an indictment is issued.
* Sentencing: In sentencing, judges tend to be heavily influenced by confessions and expressions of contrition.
Source: Associated Press