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As I See It: The dangers of relying too heavily on interrogation recordings

In the case of the murder of a 7-year-old girl in the Tochigi Prefecture city of Nikko (then Imaichi), for which 34-year-old Takuya Katsumata was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Tochigi District Court as prosecutors had demanded, there was no direct physical evidence. Rather, what became the decisive factor in the sentence were the audio and video recordings of his interrogations in which he is shown admitting guilt.

    Prosecutors screened at least seven hours of video in the courtroom. Having been in the gallery for all 18 hearings of the trial, I came away wondering if we could ever reach "the truth" by relying wholly on video.

    I first saw Katsumata in the courtroom on Jan. 29 this year. It was a hearing for a case separate from the murder. He was slouched over, spoke softly, and appeared timid.

    Hearings on the interrogation videos began on March 10. As video of Katsumata taken from a fixed camera set up behind the prosecutor questioning him were projected onto the courtroom screen, the tension among the lay judges and reporters was palpable.

    Footage from an interrogation that took place in February 2014 was shocking. "I want to exercise my right to remain silent," Katsumata said.

    "What you're doing is playing dirty," the prosecutor responded forcefully. "I'd like to show how underhanded you're being to the victim and the bereaved family."

    Suddenly, Katsumata screamed five or six times, "I can't take it anymore!" and ran straight for the window behind the prosecutor. His voice was so loud that his voice cracked on the speakers in the courtroom, and he disappeared from the frame. "I just can't take it anymore!" he yelled, his voice obviously pained.

    On the one hand, Katsumata's lawyers said that the incident had been a suicide attempt by their client, criticizing prosecutors for continuing with such unreasonable interrogations. Prosecutors, on the other hand, explained that the defendant had tried to escape the interrogation. I, meanwhile, was left with the impression that Katsumata was trying to escape from reality. I didn't see it as a suicide attempt, and I didn't think what he did was the same thing as running away from the interrogation. The video itself may have been "objective," but ultimately, the subjectivity of those who see the recordings always come into play.

    I was also taken aback by the fact that Katsumata's Japanese was more halting and broken than I'd expected. Originally from Taiwan, he arrived in Japan at age 12 after moving from place to place with his father, who skipped town every two years to escape debt collectors. He said he learned Japanese through television and manga. In the courtroom, he was seen checking with his lawyer how to pronounce "the eighth" of a month in Japanese. He exhibited a verbal tic, saying, "That's pretty much right" to multiple questions. But when asked by prosecutors what he meant by "pretty much" -- as opposed to completely -- he was unable to explain himself.

    It was video shown on March 15 that likely left a strong impression on the lay judges. It was a clip of Katsumata in June 2014, gesticulating as he reenacted the murder.

    "She'd seen my face, she'd seen my car, she knew where my apartment was, so even if I let her go, if she told anyone, I'd cause trouble to my family so I had no choice but to kill her," he explained, in tears. It was a completely different person from the expressionless defendant seen at the hearings. What he said was specific and rang true.

    In the ruling, the court stated that the circumstantial physical evidence submitted by the prosecution was not enough to prove that the defendant was guilty of the crime. Rather, it placed great importance on the defendant's confession.

    Referring to the defendant's testimony -- as seen also in a video in the courtroom -- that he continued to stab the victim even after she fell to her knees, and that when he picked her up, he noticed the strong smell of iron from her blood, the district court recognized its credibility, saying, "The testimony was too idiosyncratic to have been imagined, and there were things that came to light only through the defendant's testimony. They were things that only someone who went through the experience could talk about."

    After the ruling, the five lay judges and the two reserve lay judges held a press conference. They admitted that the video footage left the impression that the defendant was guilty, stating, "There was information that we gained from (the video) that we couldn't get through documents." Yet they also said that they couldn't tell if the defendant had been acting.

    Audio and video recordings of interrogations were formally adopted in 2009 at the time the lay judge system was launched. Its original purpose was to offer an objective way to determine whether suspects or defendants were coerced into making confessions through violence. In the latest case, however, the recordings provided prosecutors not only with "evidence" that the defendant had spoken willingly, but also a trump card showing the "credibility" of the confession.

    We must not forget, however, that the reason the trial became so dependent on the recordings originated with bungled investigations by the Tochigi and Ibaraki prefectural police departments. The DNA of a then senior Tochigi Prefectural Police official contaminated the DNA found near the victim's body -- a fact that went undiscovered for over three years, until 2009. In the meantime, the defendant had gotten rid of his car.

    In a comment released by the victim's family after the court ruling, they said they were disappointed that the defendant did not satisfy the family's desire to know the truth.

    The case will now go to the high court. However, if, because of the low court's ruling, the weight placed on confessions increases, it would be like putting the cart before the horse. The basic rule of gathering objective physical evidence through investigations must be respected. (By Reiko Noguchi, Utsunomiya Bureau)

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