South Korea judge hands life sentence to 23-year-old man convicted of fatal rampage

A South Korean judge convicted a man of murder Thursday for an unprovoked car-and-stabbing rampage that killed two people and injured 12 others in a city near Seoul last year.

Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for 23-year-old Choi Won-jong, who was arrested in August after he rammed his car into pedestrians in a bustling leisure district in Seongnam and then stepped out of the crashed vehicle and stabbed people at random at a nearby shopping mall. Two of the five people who were hit by the car died of their injuries, while nine others were treated for stab wounds.

Judge Kang Hyun-koo of the Suwon District Court’s Seongnam branch gave Choi a life prison sentence, rejecting defense lawyers’ appeal for leniency based on the defendant’s mental health problems.

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Choi had been diagnosed for schizoaffective disorder, which the court acknowledged fueled his delusional beliefs that he was being secretly watched by a gang of stalkers.

The court also ordered Choi to wear an electronic tracking device for 30 years, seeing him as a potential risk for committing similar crimes in the future. Under South Korean law, a person sentenced to life in prison becomes eligible for parole after 20 years.

The judge said Choi’s crime had damaging social consequences as it “created fear that anyone could become a target of a terror attack in a public place.”

Choi was found guilty on charges of murder, attempted murder and also premediated murder. A day before the attacks, Choi rode the subway in Seongnam with concealed knives, with an aim to kill people who looked like stalkers to him, although he didn’t harm anyone that day, according to his actions described in the verdict.

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The court said Choi’s mental health problems were not grounds for leniency given his adequate intelligence and communication skills, his history of refusing medication and the fact that, prior to the attacks, he had searched online for information on reduced punishments for criminal defendants with mental illnesses.

Choi has seven days to appeal his conviction and sentence.

His attacks came weeks after a knife-wielding man stabbed at least four pedestrians on a street in South Korea’s capital, killing one person. While the country tightly controls gun possession, there aren’t meaningful restrictions applying to knives.

Following the incident in Seongnam, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol increased the deployment of law enforcement officials in crowded areas and expanded the monitoring of social media and online message boards to detect threats.

 

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