Soka Incident trio cleared 17 years later

Civil suit verdict puts an end to ordeal of defendants, now in their 30s

Kyodo

The Tokyo High Court on Tuesday upheld a lower court decision in a civil case and ruled that three men were not guilty of the July 1985 rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl in the city of Soka, Saitama Prefecture.

Presiding Judge Hideichi Yazaki rejected an appeal by the girl’s family, which had sought damages from the three, who were minors when they were arrested for the crimes.

The civil suit was seen as a de facto retrial for the three men, who were found guilty in a juvenile court and have since completed their sentences.

At issue was whether confessions obtained from the youths at the time of the investigation were reliable, and whether blood samples found at the murder scene matched those of the defendants.

The case, known as the Soka Incident, has been twisting and turning through the courts. After the murder of the girl in July, six youths aged between 13 and 15 were arrested or taken into police custody. They initially confessed to the crimes only to plead not guilty during juvenile court proceedings.

In September 1985, the Urawa Family Court ruled that all but the youngest of the six should go to a correctional facility, a ruling that was upheld by the Tokyo High Court in 1986 and the Supreme Court in July 1989.

The girl’s family in January 1989 filed a suit against the parents of three of the youths who were deemed the main culprits, demanding some 55 million yen in compensation.

In the suit, however, the Urawa District Court ruled in 1993 that the three youths were not guilty and rejected the damages demand.

When the family appealed, the Tokyo High Court overturned this ruling the following year and ordered the parents to pay about 46 million yen in damages, saying the confessions were reliable.

But in 2000, the Supreme Court threw out the high court ruling and ordered a retrial, saying the blood found at the murder scene did not match that of the youths and that it was wrong to accept the confessions because they did not match the objective evidence.

In Tuesday’s ruling, the Tokyo High Court said it was possible that the men were coached by police during questioning and that the confessions were fabricated.

Judge Yazaki said he supports the lower court’s view that “the confessions shifted on such key points as the place where the murder took place and the circumstances of the killing, and at the same time, there is no evidence such as items left at the crime scene to support” the confessions.

He also said he agrees with the district court that the type-AB blood found on the victim’s clothing did not match that of any of the three, raising speculation that the real killer had type-AB blood.

“It is not unrealistic to believe the confessions were coached by police and we cannot establish that the youths in question killed the victim based on those statements,” Yazaki added.

After obtaining their de facto acquittal, the three men accused of the killing came forward and made public their identities. Now in their 30s, Kazuya Shiba, Keiichi Shinoda and Tadayoshi Yamada spoke of how the label of murderer had affected their lives for 17 years.

“I’m thankful for the verdict,” Shiba said as tears filled his eyes. “I can finally report to my father,” who passed away during the retrial process.

Shinoda said he became distrustful of people after police refused to believe him no matter how many times he proclaimed his innocence.

“I want them to apologize to me,” he added.

The three said that if the family allowed, they would like to offer incense to the victim and offer prayers to the dead.

A lawyer for the girl’s family said they were dissatisfied with the ruling and asked for privacy, as the overturning of the previous ruling had left them emotionally drained.