May 23, 2022 - World

Parents of Navy officer sentenced in Japan detail "tragic" accident

Alkonis family

Photo courtesy of Derek and Suzi Alkonis

The parents of a U.S. Navy officer involved in a fatal car crash in Japan are urging the U.S. government to raise concerns about his prosecution with Japanese officials, telling Axios that a "misunderstanding" led to a judge sentencing their son to three years in prison.

What happened: Lt. Ridge Alkonis, 34, was driving his family back from a day trip to Mt. Fuji on May 29, 2021, when he suddenly lost consciousness behind the wheel — crashing into several parked vehicles and pedestrians. Two Japanese citizens later died from their injuries.

  • Alkonis's family says he was arrested by Japanese authorities and placed in solitary confinement for 26 days without access to a lawyer or medical examiner.
  • He was accused of driving while knowingly fatigued and indicted on charges of "negligent driving resulting in death and injury."

After his release on bail, a neurologist cited "acute mountain sickness" as the reason for Alkonis's sudden loss of conscious.

  • The trial judge refused to consider the medical episode or the settlement Alkonis paid to the victims' family — the largest private settlement by a U.S. service member in Japan's history — as mitigating factors.
  • "It is unlikely that the defendant suffered serious altitude sickness at the time," the judge said, pointing to initial testimony in which Alkonis testified he felt fine when he left Mt. Fuji.
  • Alkonis, his family and his lawyer were expecting a three-year suspended sentence, which they argue is the norm in Japan's legal system for cases like this.

What they're saying: "I was there the night that they pronounced the three-year sentence. It was a shock to virtually everybody. We had his bags packed, the kids bags were packed, he was coming home. We knew it. Then we got the phone call that he wasn't," Alkonis's mother, Suzi, told Axios in an interview.

  • "If you were to have a heart attack or stroke or some other medical emergency that causes an accident, it wouldn't be a criminal offense here. And so to be in this situation is just — it's beyond painful," she added.

The Alkonises stressed that they and their son — who has "devoted his life to serving the people of Japan" — feel immense pain for the families of the victims: an elderly Japanese woman and her son-in-law.

  • Their inability to reach out due to legal constraints "just rips you apart," said Alkonis's father, Derek. "It's got this power to just destroy you ... and creates a lot of room for misunderstanding and misinterpretation."
  • "We don't want to be disrespectful to that family or to that country. We just want things to be fair," Suzi Alkonis added.

Between the lines: The Alkonises are represented by Jonathan Franks, who also serves as the spokesman for the family of former U.S. Marine and wrongful detainee Trevor Reed.

  • Reed was released from a Russian prison last month in a prisoner exchange after his parents — with the help of Franks — secured a meeting with President Biden.
  • The Alkonis family said they have written "thousands" of letters, including to President Biden and Vice President Harris, asking U.S. and Japanese officials for help with the situation.

What to watch: Franks told Axios he hopes Biden will raise Alkonis's treatment in his meetings with Japan's prime minister and other officials in Tokyo this week, ahead of the Navy officer's appeals hearing on June 8.

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