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Former death row inmate's long march to freedom faces high court test

Iwao Hakamada is seen in March 2016 (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Iwao Hakamada, now 82, was accused of murdering four members of a family in 1966 and sentenced to death. In 2014, the Shizuoka District Court ordered the case retried, and Hakamada was released. However, the former boxer -- who worked at the Shimizu, Shizuoka Prefecture (now Shimizu Ward in the city of Shizuoka) miso factory managed by the family -- will face one more twist in his legal struggle on June 11. That is when the Tokyo High Court will rule on prosecutors' appeal against the retrial order.

Which way will the high court go? The following is a summary of the core issues of the case.

DNA Evidence

The primary reason for the Shizuoka District Court's decision to retry Hakamada was new DNA evidence provided by the defense. The 1968 decision convicting Hakamada and sending him to death row (confirmed by the Supreme Court in 1980) concluded that bloodstained clothes found near the scene had been worn by the culprit, and noted that tests had shown the blood types of the stains matched that of the defendant and the victims.

The DNA test, carried out by University of Tsukuba professor Katsuya Honda, used special proteins to assemble blood components and extracted only white blood cells containing DNA through heating and centrifuge separation. Honda concluded that the DNA in the bloodstains matched neither Hakamada's nor the murdered family members'.

At the request of the prosecution, the Tokyo High Court ordered an examination of Honda's test to confirm its efficacy. This was carried out by Koichi Suzuki, a professor at Osaka Medical College, who submitted a report to the high court stating, "The special proteins used in the Honda test include components that break down DNA, and so the test method is inappropriate." One of the focal points in the June 11 decision, then, is how the appeal court will judge the trustworthiness of Honda's test results.

The Bloodstained Clothes

The "culprit's clothes" stained with blood were not found until about a year and two months after the murders, buried in a tank of miso at the factory. By this point, Hakamada had already been indicted and was in the middle of his district court trial, and the prosecutors switched suddenly from saying that he had been wearing pajamas at the time of the incident, to insisting that he had in fact been dressed in the five pieces of clothing just found at his former workplace. The court's decision ultimately concluded that the clothes in the miso tank were indeed the ones worn during the killings.

Hakamada's attorneys kept a similar set of bloodstained clothes buried in miso for the same period of time, and submitted the results of the experiment to the Shizuoka District Court hearing. Based on these results, the court's retrial ruling in 2014 stated that the clothing submitted as evidence at the first trial was "too light in color to have been hidden in miso for that length of time," and that "the bloodstains were still too red," and concluded that "there is suspicion that investigators fabricated the evidence" of the bloodstained "culprit's clothes."

The prosecutors' high court appeal states that they undertook their own miso experiment and found that "the color of the clothing in fact gets lighter as it absorbs the miso juice. Furthermore, the color of the blood differs depending on the amount." The defense has countered that "it would be strange for the clothing color not to darken, especially looking at the results of our experiment. As to the color of the bloodstains, they get darker in the prosecutors' experiment as well, which therefore backs our point about the unnatural color change."

Recordings of Hakamada's Interrogations

At least about 48 hours of Hakamada's questioning were recorded on tape, which the prosecution has submitted to the Tokyo High Court. The defense has transcribed their content, and had the recordings analyzed by a psychology expert. The results of the analysis have led the defense to argue the tapes are "proof of the mechanism by which an innocent man was forced and guided into making statements in line with what investigators wished." In other words, the recordings are "yet another new strong piece of evidence" for Hakamada's innocence.

Iwao Hakamada Today

After his release about four years ago, Hakamada had tended to stay inside at home, but has recently been going further afield with his 85-year-old sister Hideko and doing his own shopping. However, he also has occasional delusions -- moments his attorney said "stem from the persistent dread that his death sentence may be carried out.

"His psychological state hasn't changed from when he was at the detention center," his attorney continued, while calling for a quick not guilty verdict in a retrial.

(Japanese original by Epo Ishiyama, Tokyo City News Department, and Yukina Furukawa, Shizuoka Bureau)

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