Defense Tries To Soften Image Of Accused Rapists Trio Depicted As Stellar Soldiers In Case That Outraged Japan

Three U.S. servicemen accused of raping an Okinawa schoolgirl were painted as stellar soldiers and a loving husband Monday as defense attorneys sought to soften their violent image in a case that has outraged Japan.

Marine Pfc. Rodrico Harp, 21, buried his head in his hands and wept as his wife, Denitrease, apologized for the crime and told the court her husband is a gentle, intelligent man who “adored” his two children.

“I’m very sorry,” she said, before breaking down in sobs. “I’d like to apologize to the Japanese girl, to her mother and father, to the people of Japan and the United States.”

In the second hearing in the high-profile case, U.S. military officers testified on behalf of the other two suspects, Navy Seaman Marcus Gill, 22, and Marine Pfc. Kendrick Ledet, 20, saying they were good soldiers who performed their duties well.

The three men are accused of abducting a 12-year-old girl off the streets of Naha city on Okinawa’s southern island and taking her to a remote sugar cane field. There, prosecutors allege, they brutally beat and raped her after tying her up with duct tape and rope.

Gill has pleaded guilty to rape; Harp and Ledet have denied raping the girl but have admitted assisting in the Sept. 4 crime. The men face sentences ranging from three years to life imprisonment.

The case has ignited the fiercest protests against the U.S. military here in more than three decades, drawn repeated apologies from U.S. officials including President Clinton, and led to pledges to consolidate bases and improve discipline among the 44,000 U.S. military personnel. Bowing to the public uproar, the United States also agreed to give the Japanese early custody of military suspects in cases of rape and homicide - a move that has set off South Korean demands for similar arrangements.

Denitrease Harp’s apology in the Naha District Court and pledges by the suspects’ families to pay $14,850 in compensation to the girl appear to represent a new defense strategy to show “hansei” - the remorse and self-reflection considered necessary to minimize sentences here. The families initially claimed that Japanese officials had discriminated against the men, who are black, and coerced confessions from them.

Those remarks, made at an Atlanta news conference Nov. 7, the day of the first hearing in the case, were widely reported in Japan and further inflamed the public here.

Eric Ross, a U.S. attorney retained by the families who accompanied them to Okinawa, told Kyodo News Service that the families had “misunderstood” the situation because they lacked information and were now satisfied that racism had not played a part in the men’s arrest and indictment.

Ross also said Japanese prosecutors obtain confessions in most criminal cases and win convictions more than 99 percent of the time, so the defense team’s primary goal now is to mitigate the sentences.

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