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U.S. Navy officer facing 3 years in jail for deadly car crash in Japan

Wife of Navy officer sentenced in Japan talks
Wife of U.S. naval officer sentenced in Japan for deadly crash pleads for government’s help 03:56

Tokyo — The family of a U.S. Navy officer sentenced to three years in prison in Japan for a deadly car crash is shattered. For months, they'd hoped a judge at an appeals court would suspend Lt. Ridge Alkonis' three year sentence for what they insist was an innocent accident.

He was convicted of killing two pedestrians in May 2021 after blacking out at the wheel of the family car.

In an exclusive interview, Alkonis' wife told CBS News senior foreign correspondent Elizabeth Palmer that she hadn't understood the verdict when it was read out in court. But her husband understands Japanese, and he did.

"When I saw his face, I knew that we had lost," she said. "I was heartbroken, and the first thought that came to my mind is I have to drive home and tell my kids that they're not going to see their father for three years."

The high court judge did not accept that Alkonis had lost consciousness due to altitude sickness, which was the assessment of the U.S. Navy. Instead, in the judge's opinion, the Navy officer had dozed off behind the wheel.  If he was tired, she said, he should have pulled off of the road.

A family photo shows U.S. Navy Lt. Ridge Alkonis with his wife Brittany. Courtesy of the Alkonis family

"But he wasn't tired," Brittany Alkonis told CBS News. "He was fine and alert. He had even noticed that I was at risk of getting car sick and told me to be careful."

No one will ever know for sure why Alkonis passed out. Neither the Japanese police nor the U.S. Navy conducted a full medical exam during the 26 days he was in detention before he was charged.

"I'm really angry," Brittany told CBS News. "We've been told that this is the most egregious action against a service member in 60 years."

The U.S. Navy told the "Stars and Stripes" newspaper that it was "disappointed with the result, which we believe is uncommonly disproportionate."

But this tragic story is playing out against a long history of resentment in Japan against U.S. military personnel. The popular perception is that they're shielded by the military from facing justice for crimes they commit in Japan. 

"I've heard that argument, and I won't deny some truth to it," Brittany told Palmer. But she added: "That has definitely changed over the past two to three decades."

Alkonis' sentence is not as harsh as it might have been. Conviction on the charge of negligent driving causing death can be punished by seven years imprisonment in Japan.

But the family had hoped there were enough mitigating circumstances that the jail sentence could be dropped.  

Alkonis, who is full of remorse, has apologized. He's also followed Japanese custom by offering restitution to the victims' families — $1.65 million. It's a huge sum for the family, and far beyond their means.

Brittany's eyes fill with tears when she describes how generously friends and relatives have responded to a GoFundMe campaign to help pay the family's expenses.

"We don't know millionaires," she told Palmer. "This was many, many hard-working, ordinary people who gave what they could. It didn't do what we'd hoped, but honestly, I have never felt so loved."

The family is now hoping for an 11th hour political intervention to keep Alkonis out of jail.

"Just a phone call from President Biden; He could call and say, 'he's coming home.' The other would be for the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Ambassador Emanuel — he could request clemency on his behalf."

The U.S. Embassy has said only that it is watching the case.

For the moment, Alkonis is at home with Brittany and their three children in the cosy house they share near the Yokosuka naval base. But the deadline for him to leave is approaching, with grim inevitability.

He's expected to report to prison at 1 p.m. on July 25, Brittany said.

"So, I'm grateful.  He'll be home for my daughter's birthday before he goes," she said, breaking down in tears.

Family time has never felt so precious.

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