A U.S. Navy lieutenant is facing three years in a Japanese prison after he fell unconscious while driving a car and crashed into an elderly woman and her son-in-law, both of whom later died.
According to The Associated Press on Sunday, Ridge Alkonis, 34, was living in Japan when he and his family decided to take a trip to Mount Fuji before an upcoming deployment last year. After hiking up the mountain, the family returned to their car to drive to lunch. On the way, Alkonis’ suddenly lost consciousness behind the wheel, caused by an extreme case of mountain sickness, his family and supporters said.
Japanese prosecutors and the judge presiding over his trial, however, believed Alkonis fell asleep at the wheel after failing to pull over, which they argued was his responsibility.
A Japanese court will hear an appeal of Alkonis’ case on Wednesday, and his parents are begging for mercy over what they say was a tragic accident.
“The word that comes to our mind is fairness. We want him to be treated fairly for an accident,” said Alkonis’ father, Derek Alkonis. “We don’t feel like it’s been that way. We know it hasn’t been that way. And it concerns us that our son has been given a three-year prison sentence for an accident.”
The AP reported that Alkonis was arrested and held for nearly a month in solitary confinement after the crash. He was also interrogated several times a day and was not given medical attention or evaluation.
Japanese officials accused Alkonis of negligent driving that resulted in death and a judge sentenced him to three years in prison. The charge has a maximum penalty of seven years.
The judge said Alkonis’ initially told police that he felt drowsy, and despite subsequent testimony from Alkonis that he felt sudden mountain sickness, the judge asserted that such a condition would have subsided during the drive down the mountain.
A spokesman for the Navy said Alkonis is still on active duty, adding that the service has given him and his family “the whole-person care and support they need.”
Following his lawyer’s recommendation, Alkonis pleaded guilty and agreed to pay restitution to the victim’s families in the amount of $1.65 million.
“Ridge has said from day one, minute one: All he wants to do is help this family. He feels the burden of what happened that day,” said his mother, Suzi Alkonis. “We all do.”
University of Pennsylvania professor Eric Feldman, who teaches Japanese law, said Japan values remorse, and that a payment to victims can help sway prosecution.
“There’s a general view that what you don’t want to do in Japan is to continue to proclaim one’s innocence,” Feldman said.