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Sunday, Dec. 22, 2002

MEDIA MIX

Trial judge completes the vicious circle in curry-poisoning case


Exactly four years ago in this column, I wrote that, egged on by the media, which had already tried and convicted Masumi Hayashi for murder in the Wakayama Curry Poisoning Incident even before she was arrested, "the police . . . proudly announced that they have enough circumstantial evidence to convince everyone that Hayashi is guilty and will worry about a motive later."

Their prescience was affirmed last week, when the Wakayama District Court imposed the death penalty on Hayashi, with presiding Judge Ikuo Ogawa declaring that the circumstantial evidence was sufficient for a guilty verdict but that no clear motive was revealed.

To anyone who believes in the rights of the accused and due process, the ruling is bound to be disturbing, but the general mood in the media has ranged from philosophical (the Asahi Shimbun's editorial called the lack of evidence and motive "frustrating") to gleeful.

On the morning after the verdict, the "wide shows" took a break from making fun of North Korea to express their unconditional approval of the verdict. Though a few pundits expressed reservations, they were mostly of an academic nature. TV Asahi's muckraking reporter, Shuntaro Torigoe, whose specialty is perversions of justice, essentially declined to comment.

The buoyant spirits are hardly surprising since the judge adhered to the media's original version, which came out after dozens of news-gatherers descended on the town of Sonobe in the fall of 1998 to look over the shoulders of the police as they tried to find the person who put arsenic in a pot of curry at a neighborhood festival, thus resulting in the deaths of four people.

But while the media can be credited with influencing public opinion to such a level that a guilty verdict became a foregone conclusion even before the trial began, their means of doing so was discredited by the judge, albeit indirectly.

The prosecutors, in a bid to advance a motive for the crime, talked the court into allowing as evidence interviews with Hayashi that were conducted by commercial broadcasters prior to her arrest. In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that visual materials gathered by news organizations could be used in criminal trials, but since then such materials have only been used as direct evidence. In other words, the tape or film in question actually showed a crime being committed.

Hayashi's case is different.

Owing to community gossip and Hayashi's involvement in insurance fraud (which also involved possible murder), four TV networks interviewed her about the curry poisoning.

In these interviews she mentioned the negative "atmosphere" in the place where the curry was prepared. She was expected to help with the preparation of the food, but didn't show up until the curry was already made. She sensed resentment in the air.

The prosecutors, citing testimony from other women who said that they did say disparaging things about Hayashi because she failed to show up for the curry preparation and believed Hayashi overheard these remarks, asked the judge to allow the video footage as evidence of a motive, which they claimed was gekko (indignation) at these women who criticized her behind her back.

The defense tried to block the video evidence, stating that the reporters who conducted the interviews were not policemen and that they lead Hayashi into whatever statements fit their purposes. In any case, the prosecutors would be submitting their own edited version of the interviews, and would therefore select only the statements that supported their theory. The judge dismissed the defense's objections by saying that "the demands of the Constitution" for a thorough trial superseded any other considerations.

Regardless of the judge's legal reasons for allowing the prosecution's 13-minute "greatest hits" video as evidence, he seems to have lacked what is commonly called "media literacy." Anyone who watched TV during the fall of 1998 would have come to the conclusion that Hayashi was a murderer, much the same way that Americans became convinced of O.J. Simpson's guilt even before his trial began.

What's interesting about the judge's decision is that he allowed only videotape that had been shown on TV. In fact, he indicated that since the footage had already been seen by the public, it was somehow irresponsible not to include it as evidence.

According to this mode of thought, it would have made more sense from a legal standpoint to insist on using all of the videotape taken during the interviews rather than just the selections the prosecution wanted the court to see. Such a move, however, would have set a dangerous precedent with regard to reporters' notes and sources. The media, in principle, has decried the use of such videos as evidence in criminal cases, including this one.

The judge, perhaps having become media literate during the course of the trial, rendered all these theoretical concerns moot by saying that the edited interviews did not prove a motive, which, of course, they didn't.

An executive of Mainichi Broadcasting later told the Asahi Shimbun that the media's role is to "stand to the side and keep an eye on the authorities," and that role would become meaningless if the media could be used "as a convenient tool of the courts."

It's a fine-sounding statement, but it's also a hypocritical one in this case, since the media did not stand to the side but rather became a core participant, as proven by the interviews. As for "keeping an eye on the authorities," at the time of the investigation they mostly watched the police trying in vain to come up with hard evidence. The police obviously felt the pressure to produce results. The judge said he reached his decision after careful analysis of the evidence, but it isn't difficult to imagine that he felt that pressure, too.



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