Killer of Japanese visitor could walk free

File photo of Kirk Lankford

The man convicted of murdering Japanese visitor Masumi Watanabe could one day walk out of prison. The Hawaii Paroling Authority has scheduled a hearing that could change Kirk Lankford’s minimum sentence of 150 years, one of the longest minimum sentences set in Hawaii.

That possibility is devastating Masumi Watanabe’s family. It’s been nearly seven years since she died and her parents are still looking for closure. “They’re still waiting for the daughter to come home,” said family friend Bob Iinuma. “Nothing has changed.”

Lankford was convicted of killing Watanabe and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 2008. The minimum sentence of 150 years ensured he would never get out of jail, but that could change.

“They’re not happy,” Iinuma said. “They’re confused. They thought it was set.”

The Hawaii Paroling Authority has set a new hearing date for Lankford “to make proper what was not done properly the first time,” said chair Bert Matsuoka. When the previous parole board set Lankford’s 150-year minimum sentence, they were also supposed to submit a written justification for surpassing the longest minimum sentence of 50 years. Because that justification was never submitted, Lankford is getting a new hearing.

“The 50 years is the maximum within the guidelines, but the board has full discretion to go lower or to go higher,” Matsuoka said. Going lower means Lankford, who will turn 29 this year, would be up for parole much sooner.

Honolulu prosecuting attorney Keith Kaneshiro says his office will ask the board to keep the murderer’s 150-year-minimum sentence. “There’s a minimum date, but that doesn’t mean the defendant should be released,” Kaneshiro said. “Some defendants [including Lankford] should serve life in prison. They should be there for life.”

Lankford has apologized to the Watanabes, not for the murder of their daughter, but for trying to cover up what he says was an accident. “The defendant has never indicated any remorse,” Kaneshiro said, “and to this day, we have not recovered her body.”

“We’ll just take it one step at a time and I’m very confident that the daughter’s remains will be found and returned,” Iinuma said.

Lankford will appear before the Hawaii Paroling Authority next month via video conference from his prison in Arizona.

Watanabe’s parents, who still live in Japan, will return to Hawaii for the hearing.

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