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Saturday, May 28, 2011
Case highlights judicial misdeeds
On Aug. 30, 1967, a carpenter was found strangled to death at his home in the Fukawa district of the town of Tone, Ibaraki Prefecture. He had been robbed of ¥100,700. In October that year, two men — Mr. Shoji Sakurai and Mr. Takao Sugiyama — were arrested as suspects.
During the interrogation by investigators, the two men confessed to the murder-robbery. In the trial at the Tsuchiura branch of the Mito District Court, the two insisted that the confessions were made under coercion by investigators and denied their involvement in the crime.
Nonetheless, the court found them guilty and sentenced them to life imprisonment in October 1970, on the strength of their confessions and eyewitnesses' accounts. The Supreme Court finalized their sentences in 1978.
On May 24, the same court in Tsuchiura acquitted the two men in a retrial, clearing them of their murder-robbery charges nearly 44 years after their arrest. But it found each of them guilty of theft or violence in separate cases and sentenced each to two years in prison, suspended for three years.
In handing down the ruling on the murder-robbery case, presiding judge Daisuke Kanda said there was no objective evidence that proves their guilt. He noted that hairs and fingerprints found in the crime scene did not match those of the two men. He also said that an eyewitness' account of seeing the two men in front of the victim's house lacked credibility.
The so-called Fukawa case becomes the seventh case in postwar Japan in which a defendant or defendants previously sentenced to death or life imprisonment have been acquitted in a retrial.
Both the police and the prosecution must seriously reflect upon the fact that the two were falsely charged and forced to be in jail and prison for about 29 years before being paroled in November 1996. They must take concrete steps to prevent false charges.
The retrial ruling strengthens the case for recording interrogations in their entirety.
It is unfortunate that the ruling did not delve into why and how the investigators falsely charged the two, nor mentioned the court judges' responsibility. It pointed only to the possibility that the investigators used leading questions while interrogating the suspects.
While serving in prison, Mr. Sakurai and Mr. Sugiyama first filed for a retrial in 1983, but their request was rejected. After they were paroled, they filed again for a retrial in 2001. In September 2005, the court in Tsuchiura decided to hold a new trial and the Supreme Court upheld the decision in December 2009.
In a similar case the year before, in December 2008, the Tokyo High Court had ordered a fresh DNA test, responding to a retrial request by Mr. Toshikazu Sugaya, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for the May 1990 murder of a 4-year-old girl in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture. The results of the new DNA test led to the release of Mr. Sugaya in June 2009, after he had served 17? years of the life sentence. In a retrial of the case in March 2010, he was acquitted.
During the Fukawa retrial, the defense counsel played back audio tape that recorded part of the confessions by Mr. Sakurai and Mr. Sugiyama and pointed out that investigators had edited the tape by repeating "stop" and "record" and by overdubbing. It also pointed out that the two men's confessions on the method of killing the victim changed over time.
The prosecution disclosed the existence of this tape only after the defense counsel filed the second request for a retrial.
The prosecution also failed to disclose an eyewitness' account advantageous to Mr. Sugiyama until the trial held to weigh the two men's request for a retrial. A woman had said that although she saw a man near the crime scene around the time when the crime occurred, it was not Mr. Sugiyama.
It is clear that the Criminal Procedure Law must be revised to require the prosecution to immediately disclose all the evidence it possesses to the defense counsel.
In the retrial ruling, the court said that except for evidence related to the condition of the victim's body and the crime scene, there was no evidence that reinforces the confessions made by the two. It also pointed out that as time went by, they changed without rational reasons their confessions over the crime and important points, and that the men's accounts conflicted with one another on many points.
It concluded that while the trustworthiness of the two men's argument that they were forced to make false confessions through the investigators' leading questions cannot be denied, the investigators' insistence that they never used leading questions cannot be trusted.
In its 1978 ruling, after examining the content of different audio tape the Supreme Court said that the two men's confessions were coherent and revealed things that they could not have discussed if they had not experienced them. But it must be remembered that this tape was only a partial recording of the confessions.
If a recording of the entire interrogation had been available, the Supreme Court might have reached a different conclusion.