In a case that triggered national outrage over American military bases in Japan, three U.S. servicemen were found guilty today in the vicious beating and rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl.
The three defendants--Navy Seaman Marcus Gill, 22, and Marine Pfcs. Rodrico Harp, 21, and Kendrick Ledet, 20, stared straight ahead without expressing emotion as the verdict was read, courtroom observers said.
The prison sentences of seven years for Gill and Harp and 6 1/2 years for Ledet were less than the 10 years requested by prosecutors for a crime they termed so horrible it "shattered the victim more than death." Ledet, who said he tried to stop the sexual assault when he saw the victim's youth, was convicted on charges of abduction and violence but not rape.
The court said it showed leniency because the defendants--who grabbed the girl off a street, bound her and assaulted her in a deserted area in September--were still young and showed regret. The court also considered a plea for mercy made by the defendants' families, who attended the trial.
After the verdict was read, Barbara Cannon, Ledet's mother, apologized to the victim and her family but said she felt "very bad" about the verdict. It was unclear whether the defendants would appeal the verdict, since their American and Japanese attorneys were divided on the question.
The sentences are to be served in Yokosuka prison, just south of Tokyo, which has a special ward for prisoners from the U.S. military.
The verdicts cap a six-month drama that fueled tabloid images of U.S. servicemen as devils and beasts and, some here say, dampened military morale.
"This is not characteristic of the Marine Corps, but someone has to be held accountable," said Master Sgt. Kevin R. Thomas, 38, after the verdict was announced. "I lower my head in shame because they were Marines and I can't disconnect myself from the Marine Corps."
But whether the case will produce lasting, significant changes in the U.S. military presence is unknown.
Activists here say the verdict will do nothing to resolve Okinawan grievances against the bases: violence, noise pollution, environmental damage and lost opportunities to develop industries such as tourism.
"The military presence itself leads to racial and sex discrimination," said Suzuyo Takazato, a Naha city assemblywoman.
Neither nation is seriously challenging the Pentagon's assertion that 100,000 troops are still necessary in Asia despite the Soviet Union's demise--with the exception of some liberal politicians here and a few American scholars, who argue that the U.S. should send the Marines home and secure regional stability through air or naval power.
Nor are officials questioning the validity of the bilateral security treaty itself, which commits the United States to defend Japan.
Initially, at least, the rape case grew into a symbol of lingering U.S. colonial attitudes toward Japan, of Japanese discrimination against Okinawans, of male military dominance of women. National horror over the cruelty displayed toward such a young girl led to the largest protest rally in three decades against U.S. military bases on this southern island, where 47,000 troops are deployed as a linchpin of America's Asia Pacific security strategy.
Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota kept the issue aflame by refusing to force reluctant landowners to renew lease agreements for land housing several U.S. military installations. The first lease expires March 31, jeopardizing the use of a critical communications facility in the city of Yomitan.
Suddenly, a security relationship long taken for granted came under harsh scrutiny by the media here: everything from Japanese taxpayer support of the bases--the most generous in the world--to the perceived privileges bestowed on the forces to the need for foreign troops absent the Soviet threat.
As Japanese support for the bases plunged below 50%--a record low--the United States swiftly responded with a flurry of damage-control measures: apologies from President Clinton and others, tighter military discipline, a curfew and a "day of reflection."
The U.S. also agreed to grant early custody of suspects in rape and murder cases to Japanese authorities--a legal revision that sparked similar demands in South Korea. And both sides are expected to announce some base consolidations--while vigorously reaffirming the security alliance--during Clinton's visit to Japan next month.
Japanese officials bluntly confess that most people here don't even want to think about a future without the Americans because of the sensitive issues it would force them to confront: how much to remilitarize, for instance, or whether to change the peace constitution to allow overseas dispatch of combat troops.
Even in Okinawa, where 82% of those recently surveyed by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper supported a base reduction, the idea of a complete U.S. withdrawal appears to stir unease. In one shopping mall near sprawling Kadena Air Field, four of five people questioned--from retired repairman Takumi Mori, 86, to bakery worker Noriko Arakaki, 24--said Okinawa needs both the jobs and the protection the Americans provide.
"If the Americans all leave, where will people work?" said Hatsuko Higa, 60. "Okinawa has no industry." Seated next to her on a mall bench, Mori said he supported the troops despite the nightly nuisance of GIs and prostitutes lining his neighborhood streets: "Without the Americans, we'll go back to the prewar Okinawa, where people were barefoot and ate nothing but potatoes."
Chiaki Kitada of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.