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Danger of relying on confessions a lingering issue in case of murdered Tochigi girl

UTSUNOMIYA -- The Utsunomiya District Court on April 8 sentenced a 33-year-old man to life imprisonment over the murder of a 7-year-old girl from Tochigi Prefecture, deeming video footage of the defendant's confession -- the pillar of prosecutors' case -- to be credible.

Yet the investigation leading to the trial against Takuya Katsumata wavered from the outset, and the danger of forming cases that rely on confessions has repeatedly been pointed out. It can be said that investigative authorities were burdened with all sorts of issues.

Katsumata's trial was widely seen as a litmus test for the wider application by prosecutors of audio and video recordings. The defendant was recorded giving details on the murder with gestures, and at times he smiled. These points ended up reinforcing the voluntary nature and credibility of his confession.

At the same time, there was no decisive objective evidence to back up a confession in the case. This was partly because the Tochigi and Ibaraki prefectural police forces had made errors. It turned out that the DNA of a Tochigi Prefectural Police officer had got mixed up in samples taken in the area near where the girl's body was found, preventing identification of a suspect until 2009, when investigators realized this mistake. The arrest of Katsumata came five years after this. Such scattering of developments prevented police from obtaining strong evidence.

The investigation subsequently shifted its focus to a confession, and with the lack of physical evidence, the unusual step of a police officer testifying on N-system vehicle license plate identification records was taken. These records are usually regarded secret.

Now, however, as Katsumata's confession was judged to be credible and circumstantial evidence was ruled admissible to a certain degree, the defendant's lawyers look likely to face a difficult job in their appeal against the district court ruling.

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