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Editorial: Japan man who spent decades on death row must get retrial now

The Tokyo High Court has issued a ruling granting a retrial to Iwao Hakamada, who was sentenced to death more than half a century ago for a 1966 quadruple murder in Shizuoka Prefecture.

    The ruling stated that "it is impossible to conclude that he was the culprit." This is the second time a court has ruled that Hakamada is likely not guilty of the crime, which claimed the lives of four family members including a man running a miso maker where Hakamada worked.

    It has been 57 years since his arrest, and Hakamada is already 87 years old. The prosecution should accept the decision, and not file a special appeal.

    In 2014, the Shizuoka District Court decided to initiate a retrial, but the Tokyo High Court reversed the decision. This was reversed in turn by Japan's Supreme Court, and the case was sent back to the high court for further deliberation.

    The point of contention in the second go-round at the Tokyo High Court was the color of the bloodstains on the clothing prosecutors alleged belonged to the killer. The clothing was found a year and two months after the murders in a large miso tub at the miso company, and was considered important evidence. When Hakamada's death sentence was finalized, the court accepted that the clothes had been stashed in the tub immediately after the crime.

    However, the bloodstains had a reddish tint, and using expert testimony and experimental results, the defense argued that the blood should have been a dark brown had it been soaking in miso for so long. The most recent decision found the experiments and expert opinion credible.

    And if the bloodstained clothes could not have been hidden for that long, it would have been impossible for Hakamada to hide them, as he had been arrested about a month and a half after the crime and been in custody ever since. The decision also referred to suspicions that the authorities had fabricated evidence, stating, "It is very likely that someone from the investigation did so."

    Evidence in the case was scarce from the start. Until the bloodstained clothes emerged, the prosecution had claimed that Hakamada was wearing something else at the time of the incident. And at the trial, Hakamada tried to put on the pants allegedly worn by the murderer. He could not. The pants were too small.

    It also emerged that Hakamada was subjected to lengthy interrogations, day after day. And of Hakamada's 45 confessions the prosecution said he gave, 44 were not accepted by the court.

    All this begs yet more questions about the investigation's propriety.

    Hakamada was behind bars for 48 years and, after his capital sentence was finalized, lived in constant fear of execution. He was released from prison in 2014, but remains on uncertain ground. It has also been 42 years since his first retrial request. A bedrock principle of criminal trials is that the defendant's interests be protected whenever there is reasonable doubt. Hakamada must get his retrial immediately.

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