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Editorial: Ex-death row inmate's retrial a call for urgent review of Japan's justice system

Iwao Hakamada, who was sentenced to death for the murder of a family of four in Shizuoka Prefecture in 1966, has been granted a retrial. The Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office gave up on filing a special appeal following the Tokyo High Court's decision to approve the retrial.

    It has taken too long to come this far, and the severity of the situation must be taken seriously.

    Hakamada is the fifth person in Japan to be granted a retrial after their death sentence was finalized, and the first case in 36 years since a retrial was ordered for Masao Akahori, who was falsely convicted over a 1954 murder case. In all four cases, those who underwent retrials were acquitted.

    It has been 57 years since Hakamada's arrest, and he is now 87 years old. His sister Hideko, who was seeking the retrial, is 90 years old. It is very likely that Hakamada will be acquitted in the retrial, which must begin immediately.

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

    Investigation and trial must be verified

    The point of contention in the second go-round at the 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 a miso company.

    The high court recognized that the reddish tint of the bloodstains should disappear after being left in the miso tub for over a year. It was pointed out that Hakamada, who had already been arrested, could not have hidden the clothing in the tub, as the bloodstains were a reddish color.

    The defense presented expert testimony analyzing the mechanism that turns bloodstains dark brown. Prosecutors also conducted an experiment in which clothing with bloodstains was dipped in miso for a year and two months.

    The latest decision was the conclusion reached after both sides used all possible means to make their case. It would have been difficult to overturn the decision even if the Supreme Court was asked to hear the case again.

    Hakamada lived in constant fear of execution after his capital sentence was finalized in 1980. He was released from prison in 2014, but remains on uncertain ground. Those who forced him to endure the hardships carry a grave responsibility.

    Problems with Hakamada's investigation and trial have been revealed. He was subjected to lengthy interrogations, day after day. He was forced to "confess" without being allowed to even go to the bathroom. Of Hakamada's 45 confessions submitted to the court, 44 were not accepted.

    Although the bloodstained clothing was the deciding factor in the final verdict, the prosecution had claimed that he was wearing something else at the time until the clothes were found. At the trial, Hakamada tried to put on the pants allegedly worn by the murderer. He couldn't as the pants were too small.

    The high court's decision also referred to suspicions that the authorities had fabricated evidence, stating, "It is very likely that investigative agencies hid the clothing (in the miso tub)." The Shizuoka District Court, which first approved the retrial, made a similar remark.

    If true, this is outrageous and undermines the trust of the public. The investigation at the time must be examined and the actual situation clarified.

    The responsibility of the courts for repeatedly supporting Hakamada's death sentence must also be questioned. Norimichi Kumamoto, a judge at the initial trial, revealed that he was convinced of the innocence of Hakamada, but was unable to persuade the other judges and unwillingly wrote the capital punishment ruling.

    Procedures must the promptly reviewed

    Evidence in the case was scarce from the start. Investigative authorities and courts should reaffirm the ironclad rule of criminal trials that "the accused must be given the benefit of the doubt."

    It has been 42 years since Hakamada first filed his request for a retrial. The passage of time has highlighted the inadequacies of Japan's retrial system. The absence of rules to require prosecutors to disclose evidence is especially problematic. It depends on the decision of the judges, and is pointed out as a "retrial disparity."

    In Hakamada's case, around 600 pieces of evidence were disclosed after the second retrial was requested. These included color photographs of clothing with bloodstains, backing the defense's argument. In many past cases where the defendant was acquitted after their retrial, newly disclosed evidence became the deciding factor for the acquittal.

    The fact that prosecutors can appeal against the court's decision to initiate a retrial is one of the reasons criminal procedures tend to be excessively long in Japan.

    The retrial system has been improved in places including Europe and the United States. Germany does not allow prosecutors to appeal against the court's decision. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations is calling for a revision of the system so that prosecutors will not be allowed to make an appeal.

    A retrial is an important procedure to correct erroneous judicial decisions. Especially in the case of death sentences, there is no going back once the sentence is carried out even if the defendant is later found to have been falsely convicted.

    In Japan, the provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure regarding retrials have not changed since the end of World War II. It must be urgently reviewed to provide relief to victims of wrongful convictions.

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