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Supporters, experts blast Japan's top court for not granting murder retrial to 92-yr-old

Ayako Haraguchi smiles at a celebration thrown for her June 15 birthday at the hospital where she is staying in Kagoshima Prefecture on June 7, 2019. (Mainichi/Soichiro Hayashi)

A retrial for a nonagenarian woman convicted of murder that a district court granted and a high court upheld was denied by the Supreme Court June 25, prompting supporters and experts to call the move "a suicidal act by the judiciary" that "goes against the times."

Ayako Haraguchi, now 92 years old, has consistently denied involvement in the 1979 murder of her 42-year-old brother-in-law in Osaki, a town in the southwestern Japan prefecture of Kagoshima. Even after she was convicted of the murder and other charges in 1981 and served 10 years in prison, she continued to deny that she committed the killing, and sought a retrial. Her usually warm expression clouded over when talk turned to the case, and she expressed her anger toward police and the courts.

She started living at an elderly welfare facility in the Kagoshima prefectural city of Shibushi four years ago, and is now in a hospital in the prefecture to manage her health. Last March, when she was told by her attorneys that the Miyazaki branch of the Fukuoka High Court had approved the start of a retrial, she was barely able to squeeze out a "thank you." More recently, she has had trouble uttering any words.

On June 7, Haraguchi's lawyers visited her at the hospital, and celebrated her 92nd birthday, which was on June 15. "Let's hang in there just a little bit longer until you're pronounced innocent," her attorneys told her, and she nodded in response.

Upon learning of the Supreme Court's latest and final decision dated June 25, head defense attorney Masami Mori spoke to a press conference at the Kagoshima Prefectural Government building in Kagoshima on June 26 with obvious disappointment. "We weren't expecting such a decision," he said. "I don't know how we're going to break the news to (Haraguchi)."

Secretary-general of the defense attorneys, Yumi Kamoshida, blasted the Supreme Court at a news conference at the Ministry of Justice Press Club in Tokyo's Kasumigaseki district. "This is a high-handed decision. The Supreme Court has not squarely faced 92-year-old Ms. Haraguchi, who has been declaring her innocence," she said, raising her voice. Kamoshida choked up as she introduced a comment from Haraguchi's daughter, which said, "I'd believed that my mother and I could soon be at ease if we waited just a little bit. But I plan to continue fighting without giving up."

Satoshi Takeda, 76, who has helped Haraguchi with her day-to-day life since she became unable to care for herself, said, "It's an unforgivable decision and a suicidal act by the judiciary. We will not give up."

Junko Inadome, 61, who had been assisting Haraguchi with housework ever since the latter came out of prison and started living alone, said in a quivering voice, "If we let Ayako, who has stubbornly stayed alive for the purpose of winning her 'innocence,' know about the court ruling, it might shock her in a way that affects whether she lives or not."

Ayako Haraguchi is given flowers after the Fukuoka High Court's Miyazaki branch supported the lower court's decision on a retrial, in this photo taken at a hospital in Kagoshima Prefecture on March 12, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Ayako Haraguchi's attorneys)

Involved in the case since the first filing for a retrial in 1995, Mori, along with his colleagues, were finally able to obtain a high court branch decision green-lighting a retrial on their third attempt -- which was all the more reason the Supreme Court's decision came as a shock. "I just felt all the strength leave my body. We won't give up the fight, but whether we'll be able to win a 'not guilty' ruling while Ms. Haraguchi is alive, we can't say."

The attorneys' third attempt won over the district and high courts with new evidence they submitted. But the same evidence was determined by the Supreme Court as "not explicit enough for an 'innocent' ruling."

The courts had originally determined that the victim was drunk and fell into a ditch on the side of the road, and was carried to his home, where Haraguchi conspired with her ex-husband and two other relatives to kill the man, wrapping a towel around the victim's neck, and pulling as hard as she could to strangle him. Subsequently, the courts ruled, the defendants buried the body in a barn.

As new evidence, Haraguchi's attorneys submitted a forensic pathologist's evaluation that the victim's body did not show the same symptoms of someone who had been suffocated with a towel, and that there was a broad range of bleeding on the right side of his body, indicating the high likelihood that the cause of death was hemorrhagic shock.

The Kagoshima District Court ruled that the evidence diminished the credibility of the argument that the man had died of suffocation. The Miyazaki branch of the Fukuoka High Court went even further to conclude that it was highly likely the man had died of hemorrhagic shock caused when he fell into the ditch.

The First Petty Bench of the Supreme Court, however, determined that such lower court rulings "overestimated the (new) evidence" and were "irrational." It questioned why the body would have been buried in the barn, if the victim had died by accident. It also said that the forensic evaluation had not adequately considered the possibility that the victim's external injuries had been caused by others, and not the fall. As for doubts about the testimonies of the three relatives who were also implicated in the case and had intellectual disabilities, and that of Haraguchi's sister-in-law, who said she witnessed Haraguchi approach the relatives about killing the man, the Supreme Court ruled those doubts were "irrational."

Ayako Haraguchi, center, smiles at a press conference in the city of Kagoshima after the Kagoshima District Court decided to grant her a retrial on March 26, 2002. (Mainichi/Keisuke Kawazu)

Still, in criminal cases, defendants are innocent until proven guilty. Anything that's not 100% certain should work in the defendants' favor. Not only has Haraguchi denied any involvement in the case since her arrest, she has been granted retrials three times.

"This is a case in which there is almost no evidence aside from testimonies," says Hiroshi Kadono, a former Tokyo High Court judge. "The (so-called) accomplices' confessions have changed over time, bringing their credibility into question. Putting that together with the forensic specialist's evaluation and looking at the case comprehensively, the final decision should've been rendered inconclusive."

There have been numerous retrials in recent years in which those once convicted of murder have been found innocent and freed, some from indefinite prison sentences. "Retrials are a way of redeeming innocent people," says Yuji Shiratori, a professor of criminal procedure law at Kanagawa University School of Law. "The Supreme Court's latest decision goes against the times, when granting retrials is becoming increasingly more common."

(Japanese original by Akira Hattori, Kenji Tatsumi and Masanori Makita, City News Department; Soichiro Hayashi and Masaya Matsuo, Kagoshima Bureau; and Ryoichi Shinkai, Kanoya Local Bureau)

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