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As I See It: Third-party probe needed over police responsibility for false accusations

Kengo Iwamoto touches the paved road where a 2012 rape of which a district court found him guilty and a higher court acquitted him was said to have taken place, in Kagoshima, in January 2016. (Mainichi)

A not-guilty ruling over allegations brought against a former restaurant worker that he raped a 17-year-old girl in 2012 was confirmed on Jan. 27. The Fukuoka High Court's Miyazaki Branch, which on Jan. 12 overturned a lower court decision that found Kengo Iwamoto, 23, guilty, raised multiple questions about the DNA analyses on which investigators based their case. The ruling even raised the possibility of a cover-up on the part of the Kagoshima Prefectural Police.

    In response, the National Police Agency (NPA) sent a notice to all police departments urging improvements in investigative methods, but that alone is far from enough. Why was Iwamoto detained for more than two years? There must be a third-party probe into the case.

    On the night of Jan. 8, four days before the ruling on Iwamoto's appeal was handed down by the high court, Iwamoto and I went to the street in Kagoshima where the rape allegedly took place. The visit made me question the investigation and presiding judge Takehiro Yasunaga of the Kagoshima District Court, who sentenced Iwamoto to four years in prison.

    According to the "narrative" provided by Kagoshima Prefectural Police, shortly after 2 a.m. on Oct. 7, 2012, Iwamoto approached the then 17-year-old woman in an entertainment district in Kagoshima, then forcibly dragged her to an alleyway and raped her. Iwamoto continued to deny the allegations, saying he was drunk and had no memory of such an incident.

    One of the first questions that came to mind was how Iwamoto, who was on his bicycle, could have dragged a woman with his hand for at least 100 meters, as the police alleged. Iwamoto was riding a road bike, which forces the cyclist to maintain a forward-leaning posture. Would it have been possible for him, in that position, to drag a woman struggling to break free from his grip? The woman weighed around 50 kilograms, while Iwamoto weighed about 45. In addition, he was heavily intoxicated, and almost collided with a taxi as he swerved on the road prior to the alleged assault.

    "There are a lot of people around here even at night, and the woman was bigger than me," Iwamoto said. "If she had tried to get away, she could have." Around the time the alleged rape took place, there were many drunk people in the area, with replacement driver service operators -- which drive intoxicated clients and their cars home for them -- lined up, waiting for customers.

    More questions remain. One is that the alleged rape took place within a maximum of 45 seconds. The woman in the case testified that she was raped after a motorcycle passed by. Footage from a security camera installed about 14 meters from the site show the lights of what appears to be a motorcycle, and about 45 seconds later, the woman walking alone.

    Furthermore, the alleged site of the rape is a paved road with gravel. Just pushing one's hand to the ground forces pebbles to dig into the skin, causing pain. However, the woman in question did not sustain any injuries or damage to her clothing.

    "There's no way someone could be raped here and leave without even a scrape," Iwamoto said, putting his hand on the ground. I agree. Had the judge, who presided over the first trial and said there was "nothing unnatural" about the fact that the woman had no injuries and her clothes were intact, taken a look at the scene of the alleged crime?

    On Jan. 12, a not-guilty sentence was handed down in Iwamoto's appeal trial. As I sat in the courthouse, I thought it was the only ruling possible. Listening to Iwamoto's sobbing as the ruling was read out, I felt a renewed anger toward the investigative authorities and district court ruling on the case.

    The high court pointed out several problems with the prefectural police's claims about its investigations. First, investigators disposed of notes taken of the DNA testing procedures they carried out, so the DNA analysis cannot be replicated. Secondly, semen was detected from the woman's body, but police determined that the amount was too small to be tested.

    On Jan. 27, the day Iwamoto's innocence was confirmed, the NPA sent out a notice to all police departments in the country to preserve notes taken in the investigation process, and to test samples even when they are only available in trace amounts. This constitutes a small step forward, but is hardly enough.

    In the appeal trial, the presiding judge went so far as to say that the possibility could not be denied that investigators claimed the semen sample could not be tested due to the sample's small quantity only after they tested it and found that it did not match Iwamoto's DNA. If this were to be true, it would mean there was an intentional cover-up of evidence that investigators' found "inconvenient." This should be considered a huge scandal.

    The Kagoshima Prefectural Police Department is no stranger to false allegation scandals. Following a case in which people charged for violating the Public Offices Election Law in the Kagoshima Prefectural Assembly election in 2003 were later acquitted -- known as the Shibushi incident -- the NPA carried out a probe. Still, it failed to prevent a recurrence of false allegations. The only reasonable step now is to have a third-party investigation. And yet, Setsuo Senmyo, chief of criminal investigations at the prefectural police department, told a press conference on Jan. 28 that there is no need for another investigation into Iwamoto's case.

    For four years, ever since I started working for the Mainichi Shimbun, I have been on the crime beat, witnessing first-hand the tireless efforts of police. I have great respect for them. And that is precisely why I cannot tolerate how Iwamoto's investigation was handled. One senior prefectural police official in Kyushu said, "It's hard to believe that police were able to detect the presence of semen, but were unable to run DNA analyses on it. I wonder if the information was concealed because it didn't fit the narrative the investigators on the case wanted." This is how preposterous the situation is.

    Iwamoto was detained for about two years and four months until his release in March 2015. The detention center had no heating, and even in the southern prefecture of Kagoshima, winters were tough. He wore layered clothes and socks to fend off the cold, but still got frostbite on his feet. Contact with his parents, who believed in their son's innocence, was limited to conversations with an acrylic panel between them.

    Senior prefectural police officials repeat that their investigations were carried out according to protocol, but such a defiant attitude is unacceptable. It is the responsibility of the Kagoshima Prefectural Police, which wrongfully deprived an innocent man of his freedom, to face the case head on and implement measures to prevent anything like this from ever happening again. (By Kazuya Shimura, Kyushu News Department)

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