Monday, Feb. 7, 2000
Legal experts watching the confused and drawn-out legal proceedings surrounding the 1985 rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl in Soka, Saitama Prefecture, say the case reflects common defects that plague Japanese criminal trials.
The case, in which six juveniles were found guilty in a family court decision effectively overturned through a civil suit that went all the way to the Supreme Court, illustrates how judges in criminal proceedings fail to properly examine evidence and put excessive weight on confessions presented by prosecutors -- a tendency often criticized as the root cause of false convictions.
Lawyers monitoring the case point out that the judges who initially tried the accused -- who are now full adults -- overlooked seemingly obvious flaws in the prosecution's arguments, such as the fact that the blood types of the boys did not match that of the body fluid left on the victim's body.
"Because courts are not required to observe facts in civil lawsuits as strictly as in criminal ones, it is theoretically impossible that someone convicted in a criminal proceeding could be acquitted in a civil suit trial," said lawyer Satoru Shinomiya. "But it is happening in this country."
A close examination of the evidence is of course important in any criminal case, but it is even more so in cases involving minors, since they can be easily induced or intimidated by investigators into making confessions, Shinomiya said.
The boys, who were aged between 13 and 15 when arrested, are now 28 to 30 years old. There is no chance that they will have their convictions officially nullified, because Juvenile Law does not provide for retrials.
After the Supreme Court reversed the high court decision Monday, Hiroshi Shimizu, leader of the defense team, harshly criticized investigation authorities for extracting confessions and hiding evidence that could have corroborated the boys' claims of innocence.
"Investigators and prosecutors should deeply apologize to the boys and recognize that they have also given the victim and the families a very hard time by failing to catch the real offender," Shimizu said.
The defense also blamed the court for allowing such a situation to occur. "Unless the court stops relying so heavily on confessions, there will be no end to false convictions," Shimizu said.
Nobuyoshi Araki, professor of law at Rikkyo University and a supporter of the six boys and their families, said that a major cause of such a problematic structure derives from the fact that Japanese criminal courts apply the same procedure to all the cases they try, including those where the accused admit to wrongdoing.
"In an environment where over 90 percent of the accused plead guilty from the beginning of their proceedings, judges tend to give their trust on what prosecutors say, thus sometimes failing to even question the accuracy of their charges, and that really is a problem," he said.