Man sentenced to death over 2019 Kyoto Animation arson that killed 36

A Japanese court on Thursday sentenced Shinji Aoba to death for the 2019 arson attack on a Kyoto Animation Co. studio that killed 36 people, finding him mentally competent to be held accountable for his crimes.

Aoba, 45, earlier admitted to setting the blaze at the animation firm’s premises in Kyoto, western Japan, on July 18, 2019. In addition to the deaths, 32 employees were injured in the attack that has gone down as one of Japan’s worst mass murders.

As the defendant confessed to his role in the incident, the focus of the trial at the Kyoto District Court had been on whether he could be declared mentally competent.

Aoba had told the court he was motivated to carry out his crimes under the belief that Kyoto Animation had plagiarized a novel he entered into a contest run by the firm.

While Presiding Judge Keisuke Masuda acknowledged that Aoba did suffer from a delusional disorder, his conduct was little affected by it, and the defendant was “not in a state of mental incompetence or diminished capacity” at the time.

The court concluded there was no reason to avoid the death penalty even after considering circumstances favorable to the defendant, such as showing remorse, ruling his responsibility for taking 36 lives is “extremely heavy.”

The defense team had sought an acquittal or lesser sentence, arguing Aoba was not of sound mind and suffering from delusions. The 45-year-old has said he believed he was fighting back against a “dark figure” who was the architect of his book’s failure in the competition and its alleged theft.

Although Aoba apologized to the bereaved for the first time during the trial on Dec. 6, he continued to assert that the firm copied his novel.

On the day of the sentencing, Aoba entered court in a wheelchair pushed by a prison officer, his face and neck showing red scars caused by burns he sustained in the fire. He remained seated when bowing with others present at the start of court proceedings.

When asked if he had anything to say before the court announced his sentence, an emotionless Aoba said he did not. Similarly, he showed little reaction when the court delivered its verdict.

Amid interest in the high-profile trial, 409 members of the public lined up outside the courtroom in snowy conditions in a bid to secure tickets for one of 23 seats made available for observing proceedings.

Kyoto Animation, often referred to as “KyoAni,” is known worldwide for producing hit anime works including “K-On!” and “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.”

The company’s President Hideaki Hatta said in a statement that the court gave an “appropriate response and decision in accordance with the law,” but added, “Even after the ruling, our sorrow has not changed in the slightest.”

He paid tribute to all who took part in the trial and mourned the loss of lives in the attack before pledging that the company will continue to produce work while treasuring its employees.

According to the ruling, Aoba entered the firm’s Studio 1 at around 10:30 a.m. and started the fire using gasoline. There were 70 employees in the building at the time.

The trial began last September, more than four years after the incident, as Aoba sustained life-threatening burns and needed to undergo intense treatment and rehabilitation.

By Shahla Bajwa