Soul-Searching as Japan Ends a Man’s Decades on Death Row

HIROKO TABUCHI / New York Times News Service

Published Mar 28, 2014 at 11:11AM

TOKYO - Iwao Hakamada was a wiry former boxer in his 30s when he was thrown in jail for the killing of a family of four that shocked 1960s Japan. On Thursday, he limped from his cell on death row, a bewildered-looking 78-year-old who, his family fears, may have lost his mind in prison.

It took the courts nearly half a century to conclude that the evidence against him may have been fabricated by police investigators, and to order the retrial he sought.

The decision Thursday to release Hakamada, thought to be the world’s longest serving death row inmate, underscored the dark side of a criminal justice system that boasts a near-100 percent conviction rate and immediately led to calls for reform.

Critics have long charged that Japanese prosecutors maintain that rate in part by relying heavily on confessions - instead of building cases based on solid evidence - sometimes wresting the admissions of guilt from innocent people too frightened or agitated to resist police pressure.

With much of the evidence against Hakamada now discredited, the case rests on what his family and international human rights activists say is just such a flawed confession.

Hakamada has consistently testified that he admitted guilt only after an intense interrogation in which he was beaten with sticks, deprived of sleep and forced to urinate in a makeshift urinal in the interrogation room. Police records show the questioning went on for 240 hours over 20 days.

Hakamada retracted the confession soon after he made it.

“When something goes wrong in Japanese criminal justice, it tends to happen in the interrogation room,” said David T. Johnson, a professor at the University of Hawaii and an author of books on criminal justice in Japan.

The court decision also highlights what many activists call the cruelty of death row rules in Japan that deny inmates - and their families - any warning of their executions to prevent prisoners from panicking and to forestall protests outside prison gates.

Those rules meant that for much of his time in prison, Hakamada rose in the mornings in solitary confinement not knowing whether that day would be his last.

Hakamada’s frequent letters from prison to his older sister soon descended into gibberish, she told NHK, the public broadcaster, and his lawyers say he now shows signs of dementia. It is impossible to know if boxing contributed to his troubles.

By the time his lawyers first told him he was free on Thursday, they said, he seemed almost unable to take in the good news.

“You lie,” he said warily. “I’m finished.”

Hakamada’s odyssey in the court system began after he retired as a featherweight boxer and went to work at a miso maker in Shizuoka, in central Japan. Several years after he was hired, in 1966, the charred bodies of a manager at the company, his wife and two children were found in what appeared to be a murder and a fire at their house; the house had also been burglarized. More than a month later, the police arrested Hakamada.

Problems soon arose with the evidence. A pair of bloodstained pants found in a tank of miso paste that prosecutors said belonged to Hakamada were too small, which his defense team proved when he tried them on in court. But the force of the confession allowed him to be convicted.

The break in the case came recently when the defense team won its argument that DNA testing should be done on the pants and other clothing that was presented as evidence. The testing showed that the blood did not match Hakamada’s.

In announcing the decision to free him, the presiding judge, Hiroaki Murayama, said in a statement that “the possibility of his innocence has become clear to a respectable degree, and it is unbearably unjust to prolong the defendant’s detention any further.”

Japan’s criminal justice system has come under increasing scrutiny over the past decade, after a number of high-profile cases seemed to point to miscarriages of justice, including a case in 2007 in which a court found that 13 men and women had been forced to confess to a bizarre scheme of buying electoral votes with liquor and cash. One tried to commit suicide before being exonerated.

As part of continuing reforms, Japan introduced a jury system in 2009 for most criminal cases, and defense lawyers now have more discovery rights and other protections. But Japan’s conviction rate, which is higher than 99 percent, has not changed significantly. And attempts to require investigators to record interrogations have faced significant resistance from the police and prosecutors, who have tried to limit the scale and scope of those requirements and to maintain discretion for when a recording machine can be turned off.

“Things are turning in the Japanese criminal justice system,” Johnson said. “But Japan is traveling that road very slowly.”

The United States justice system has also come under significant scrutiny because of false convictions. The Innocence Project, based in New York, says more than 300 convicted prisoners have been exonerated in the United States based on DNA evidence.

Japan’s conviction rate cannot be compared directly with that of the United States. There is no plea bargaining in Japan, and prosecutors put forward only cases they are confident they will win. But experts say that the system is vulnerable to mistakes because acquittals can be considered harmful to the careers of prosecutors and judges alike. Even with jury trials, judges still have a say in many decisions.

Local news media said prosecutors intend to appeal the court’s decision on Hakamada. On Thursday, Amnesty International, which has championed his case, said in a statement that “it would be most callous and unfair of prosecutors to appeal the court’s decision,” adding, “Time is running out for Hakamada to receive the fair trial he was denied more than four decades ago.”

“If ever there was a case that merits a retrial, this is it,” Roseann Rife, East Asia research director at Amnesty International, wrote in the statement.

Hakamada’s release was front-page news and generated an outpouring of sympathy and grief. Among those calling for reform was a former appeals court judge, who suggested a discussion of capital punishment in an interview with NHK.

Other critics demanded that the justice system move more quickly. Hakamada’s conviction and death sentence in 1968 were upheld by a Tokyo appeals court in 1976, and by the Supreme Court in 1980, which made him eligible to be executed at any time. Although his defense team filed its first plea for a retrial the next year, it took almost three more decades to make its way through the courts, only to be rejected in 2008. The decision Thursday was in answer to a second plea for a retrial. Yoshihide Suga, the top government spokesman, said he was not in a position to comment on individual court rulings.

Hakamada’s case was championed over the years by activists, his sister and some of his former boxing colleagues who have raised funds for his defense. A local boxing federation has kept a ringside seat empty for him. Among his other supporters was one of the judges who handed down his death sentence. That judge, Norimichi Kumamoto, later expressed his misgivings. In a retrial petition earlier this year, he said that he had believed Hakamada was innocent, but that he was overruled by two other judges in the case. He resigned seven months after the initial ruling and, according to local media, considered suicide.

On Thursday, ill from cancer and speaking with great difficulty, he appeared on national TV, pumping his fists in the air, his eyes brimming with tears.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said. “I wish I had spoken up more back then.”