The Kagoshima District Court has decided to retry a 90-year-old woman who was imprisoned with a 10-year sentence after being convicted of murdering a man in Osaki, Kagoshima Prefecture, 38 years ago.
It is only natural that the court has decided to go ahead with a retrial, since there is no sufficient evidence to support the woman's guilt. Prosecutors should view the latest decision with gravity.
The decision was the second supporting a retrial of 90-year-old Ayako Haraguchi. An earlier decision in her favor was overturned by an appeal court.
After an examination based on new evidence, the district court concluded that it was possible the murder did not occur in the first place. It has also decided to retry her late former husband, who was convicted as an accomplice.
The victim in the so-called "Osaki case" is Haraguchi's brother-in-law. His body was found in compost in a cowshed on the premises of his home after he had had a bicycle accident and was brought home unconscious.
Police suspected that the victim was strangled, and arrested his eldest brother, who at the time was Haraguchi's husband, as well as his second-eldest brother.
Haraguchi, who was accused of instructing the two to murder the victim, and another relative were arrested based on their confessions. None of the suspects besides Haraguchi contested the charges or appealed against their convictions by the district court.
In contrast, Haraguchi denied the allegations against her when questioned by law enforcers and throughout her trial.
The three other convicts had intellectual disabilities. In its decision to open a retrial, the Kagoshima District Court pointed to the possibility that law enforcers led the three into making false confessions. One cannot help but wonder if the three were steered toward going along with a story made up by police, as there was almost no objective evidence.
If so, it would be similar to other cases in which innocent people have been falsely accused or convicted. The latest court decision has set off alarm bells over law enforcers' excessive reliance on confessions by suspects.
Film negatives submitted by prosecutors during the court examination of the retrial request overturned the conviction of Haraguchi. Based on the photos, her defense counsel submitted to the court a new forensic report stating that there were no recognizable signs the victim had been strangled, such as death spots, and pointed to the possibility that the victim died from shock caused by the bicycle accident.
The process leading up to the latest decision highlights negligence in the administration of justice. Prosecutors released more than 200 new pieces of evidence, including the film negatives, more than 30 years after the incident.
Courts' responses to the case have also been called into question. The defense team for Haraguchi repeatedly urged courts to order prosecutors to disclose new evidence up until their third request for a retrial.
Since Haraguchi is of advanced age, her honor must be swiftly restored. Prosecutors should not appeal the latest decision and should agree to open a retrial based on the principle of the benefit of the doubt.