After fighting for two long, hard years for access to key documentation relating to the death of their son, the family of Korean-American Hoon “Scott” Kang has finally managed to obtain a copy of his autopsy report.
Kang, who worked as an English teacher in South Korea, died while holidaying in Tokyo in August 2010 after sustaining severe head injuries in a building in the city’s seedy Kabuki-cho district.
The 19-year-old was found lying unconscious in a pool of his own blood around 2 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 24, in the sixth-floor stairwell of Collins Building 15, an eight-story high-rise of small hostess bars and clubs near Shinjuku City Hall.
He remained in a coma for six days before dying of his injuries, his mother by his side, at the Kokuritsu Kokusai Iryo Kenkyu Center in Shinjuku.
The Kang family has long been unhappy with the Japanese police investigation, which concluded that Scott’s death was an accident, and is calling for the case to be reopened.
The Kangs had hoped that the release of key documents such as the autopsy report would shed some light on the case and bring them nearer to obtaining closure. Instead, it has reopened old wounds and raised fresh questions about the thoroughness of the original investigation.
Although the public prosecutor released a complete copy of the Japanese report to the family, none of the autopsy photos were included. No explanation was given for the omission.
Scott’s father, Sung-won Kang, says he is disappointed and angry about the way the Japanese authorities have treated him and his family.
“Last Christmas was my third Christmas without my son,” he said. “Our lawyer worked hard to get the autopsy released, but without the photos we are left with no more answers than before about how Hoon died. [The autopsy's] conclusion about Scott’s worst injury is foolish and without some important facts.”
Kang family spokesman Ray Wozniak says the family had planned to have the autopsy independently analyzed by a medical examiner in their home state of Georgia, but without the photos it is proving extremely difficult for a third party to make a judgment about how Scott died.
The Kangs are also calling for other pieces of important evidence relating to the case to be released, in particular a video recording of Scott from the security camera in the Collins Building 15 elevator taken just after 11 p.m. that night — two hours before the fatal incident is believed to have occurred.
Kang and Wozniak, who viewed this footage numerous times at Shinjuku Police Station in 2010, believe it shows foul play played a part in Scott’s death.
According to Wozniak, the footage shows Scott entering the elevator from the first floor followed by two men.
He says the Shinjuku police later informed them — after repeated requests — that the two were a large-framed, 44-year-old Filipino tout and entertainer for The Masquerade, a gay bar in the building’s basement, and his shorter, 22-year-old Japanese assistant.
Wozniak says that after the Japanese man gets out of the elevator on the sixth floor, the Filipino proceeds to threaten Scott, holding both his fists in front of his face and then grabbing his wrist in what Wozniak calls a “control move.” Both Scott and the Filipino exit the elevator on the eighth floor.
“Most damning of all, the suspect’s right shoulder moves forward to deliver a rabbit punch to Scott’s midsection,” Wozniak said. “Scott doubles over, and in several images his face shows him to be in clear and severe pain.”
The Filipino tout seen in the elevator footage is the last known person to have seen Scott before the incident in the stairwell, and Wozniak believes the video suggests he was involved in his death.
Yet the Japanese police strongly reject this interpretation and maintain Scott’s death was an unfortunate accident.
Scott’s father first requested a copy of his son’s autopsy report when he met with Shinjuku police in late 2010, accompanied by Wozniak, a family friend.
It wasn’t until late 2012 — over two years later, and after retaining a Japanese lawyer — that they were finally able to obtain a copy of the report, and even then it was incomplete.
“The recent release of limited autopsy information is unsatisfying to those who grieve the loss of Scott Kang,” Wozniak said. “It leaves off crime scene photos, autopsy photos, the video of Scott being assaulted in the elevator and the outdoor security video footage. The photos are needed for further forensic inquiry.”
Wozniak believes the police are reluctant to fully disclose information on the case because they failed to properly investigate Scott’s death.
“With the police moving first from one theory and then to another about the cause of Scott’s death, it is evident that they do not want outside oversight into their conclusions,” Wozniak said. “That such information as we did receive had to be wrung out of the authorities by legal action is indicative of the delaying and misleading that the Japanese authorities have continued to display.”
The Kang family has asked their Japanese attorney to file a complaint against the police and also request the release of additional evidence relating to the case, in particular the crime scene and autopsy photos.
“There are far too many unanswered questions and contradictory statements from the police about Scott’s death,” Wozniak said. “We will continue our quest for the truth because this is not something simple like a traffic accident. This is about murder.”
As well as being unhappy with the Japanese authorities’ refusal to disclose all the evidence, the Kang family also believes some of the conclusions reached by the doctor who performed the autopsy, Koichi Uemura of the Tokyo Medical and Dental University, are unsound.
“The cause of death is believed to be swelling of the brain due to fracture of the cranium and acute subdural hematoma caused by a blow to the left-rear of the head,” says the autopsy report. “The fractures to the cranium are thought to be injuries sustained by a blow from a blunt object with a broad surface.”
The Kang family strongly disputes Uemura’s conclusion, which supports the police position that his death was accidental.
“The puncture wound in Scott’s head that caused his death could not have been caused by his head striking a smooth, broad surface [as in falling to the floor] as the autopsy interpretation of Scott’s wound takes pains to claim,” Wozniak said. “It is mechanically impossible.
“It is apparent to anyone with a grasp of science that a hole knocked in Scott’s head with such force as to drive the bone fragment up into his skull resulted from a blow with a pointed instrument.
“Attaching the name of a respected forensic pathologist to such a fairy-tale claim, as the police have, does not overturn the laws of physics,” Wozniak said.
Yet without access to further evidence, such as the autopsy photos, it is difficult for the Kang family to prove these suspicions.
The family also has serious questions about the blood-alcohol tests performed on Scott when he was comatose in the hospital.
The results included in the autopsy show Scott was tested on two occasions — on Aug. 24 and 25.
Of particular interest is the test result for Aug. 24 — the day of the incident — which puts Scott’s blood alcohol concentration at 0.273 percent.
This is exceedingly high, especially for someone not known as a heavy drinker.
Levels of 0.3 to 0.4 percent normally result in stupor and unconsciousness; above that figure, death by alcohol poisoning is not uncommon.
On the face of it, such a high alcohol reading would seem to support the police theory that Scott died from accidentally falling down the steps while extremely intoxicated.
This was also the conclusion reached by Uemura in his autopsy report.
To quote: “It is thought that, when the injuries were sustained, the deceased was not moderately but extremely inebriated. Given the head injury was sustained while inebriated, it is thought that, at the time of injury, the deceased was unable to break his fall and it is highly likely that this led to the life-threatening injury.”
Yet one piece of critical information is absent from the report: the time the alcohol tests were carried out. Only the dates on which the tests were taken are recorded, making it impossible to calculate how intoxicated Scott was when the incident occurred.
For Wozniak, the failure to record even the most basic information that might help determine how Scott died is yet another damning indictment of the authorities’ handling of the investigation.
Wozniak also believes the alcohol level released by the police seems much too high. He says it doesn’t match the impression he got of Scott’s condition from watching the elevator security video, recorded just hours before the fatal incident.
“The doctor uses the blood alcohol value he has to say that Scott was quite intoxicated, but if the sample was taken at 4 a.m. as opposed to 3 a.m. when he first arrived at the hospital, then the value [alcohol level] for the time he was in the elevator would have to have been so high [that] he would be approaching death by alcohol poisoning,” he explained. “Again, even with the values they claim, this is impossible, as Scott appeared normally animated on the elevator video.”
Dr. Hirotaro Iwase, a forensic pathologist at the Chiba University School of Medicine, carried out an independent analysis of the autopsy report after it was released to the family.
“[Kang] died from hitting his head — death by blunt force trauma,” Iwase said. “That is all I can say about how he died. With regards to the manner of death — suicide, accident or homicide — I don’t know. I don’t know if his death was related to a crime or not.”
Iwase added that, in his opinion, there is nothing extraordinary about Scott’s injuries that point to a clear cause of death.
“There is nothing about the nature of the wound that reveals anything. There are no peculiarities or unusual features related to it. For example, in the case of someone being hit with a hammer, you could see that afterwards, but in the case of a fall, there are no peculiar features to look at.”
Iwase acknowledges, though, that the lack of access to the photos places significant limitations on his ability go beyond the findings of the original autopsy.
According to Iwase, withholding autopsy information from the next of kin of the deceased is common practice in Japan, although this goes against international norms — especially in cases such as Kang’s, where the official cause of death has been determined to be an accident.
“In cases where there is no crime, they should release the photos as well,” he said. “The police refusing to release the autopsy in the case of criminal investigations is normal in most countries. But when a crime hasn’t occurred, the autopsy is usually released fairly promptly. In Japan, this doesn’t happen.”
In fact, the two-year period that the Kang family has had to wait before getting access to their son’s autopsy report is comparatively short by Japanese standards. In many cases, the authorities refuse outright to release the autopsy at any point.
“It is common in Japan for the authorities to wait years and years before releasing an autopsy, if they do at all,” Iwase said. “This is an area where there is much room for improvement.”
U.S. citizen and Japan resident Charles Lacey had to wait almost three years before police in Fukuoka released a copy of his brother’s autopsy report.
“I got [the report] after constant pressure,” Lacey explained. “I was calling on a regular basis — I was just a thorn in their side.
“Finally, after three painfully long years of requesting a document that in many countries is available immediately upon its completion, the authorities in Fukuoka relented and allowed me to make a digital copy.”
Lacey’s younger brother, Matthew, died in Fukuoka in 2004 in arguably suspicious circumstances, but the police quickly concluded his death was accidental.
There are a number of striking similarities between the ways the police treated the deaths of Kang and Matthew Lacey.
In both cases they soon determined that blunt force trauma to the head from an accidental fall caused the death.
Also, in both cases the police’s theory behind these alleged falls shifted, seemingly arbitrarily, over time and critical errors of omission were made during the investigative process.
In the case of Kang, the police were unable to provide the family with a consistent narrative that made sense for the hours leading up to Scott’s death, particularly in relation to his interactions with the Filipino tout who worked in the building and their reason for being in the stairwell area.
According to Kang and Wozniak, the Shinjuku police first told them Scott had wanted to go out on to the roof of the building, probably with the intention of jumping to his death, and the Filipino man had followed Scott out onto the eighth floor stairwell to stop him and to persuade him to come back into the building.
Scott was unable to go onto the roof because the access door was locked, the police said, and after failing to persuade him to come back inside, the Filipino eventually gave up and left Scott to his own devices.
At a later stage, a Shinjuku police officer allegedly told Scott’s father that they believed the Filipino man’s movements in the elevator weren’t violent or threatening, but in fact indicators of a homosexual encounter and that, for example, his son’s pained facial expression in the video, which his family believes was caused by a blow, was in fact Scott attempting to kiss the man.
Wozniak and the Kang family strongly dispute any suggestions that Scott may have been homosexual or that he was suicidal.
In the case of Matthew Lacey, the family was also very unhappy with police theory of death, which changed over time and was inconsistent.
Lacey was found lying dead on his futon in his Fukuoka apartment, in an adjacent room to where his original injury supposedly occurred.
The police claimed he fell in the kitchen, hit his head on the carpeted floor, then got up and walked to his futon, lay down and died.
Yet independent medical experts who later analyzed the autopsy, including an eminent American forensic pathologist, rejected this explanation.
“All three medical examiners told me that somebody who suffered such a severe head trauma is not going to get up from such an injury,” explained Lacey. “It was just one implausibility after the other.”
Another issue was a large reddish-black stain on the futon that the police assumed was liquid from Lacey’s decaying corpse, but which independent experts concluded was most likely blood.
“If it was blood, that would indicate that my brother was struck while lying on his futon,” Lacey said. “Instead of speculating that the stain was not blood, a simple test should have been done to confirm one way or another.”
The police explanation for Matthew’s death also changed from an initial determination of death due to sickness (diarrhea and dehydration) to accidental death due to a fall, further shaking the family’s confidence in the investigation.
Lacey added that in his home country, it is standard procedure for a copy of the autopsy report to be given to the deceased’s next of kin upon request, unlike in Japan.
“Our family and Matthew’s friends were perplexed and angry that vital information regarding the cause and manner of his death was being withheld,” he said. “We had a hard time accepting the fact that access to such important data in Japan falls below international standards.”
Lacey believes that the long delay in releasing his brother’s autopsy results meant that these critical findings by independent medical examiners, which largely disproved the police theory about his brother’s death, had little impact.
“People lose interest in cases. What would be the point in doing a follow-up investigation after two or three years?”
Also, the many long years of dealing with what the Laceys considered to be incompetent, disinterested police meant that the family could no longer see the point in reopening the case.
“If such fundamental mistakes were made in the so-called first investigation, why would I press such an inept police force to re-open the case?” he asked.
“I do want people to know, if a loved one or family member here dies abruptly or under unexplained circumstances, hire a lawyer and demand an autopsy, because the police are going to place a lot of limits on the amount of information they are going to release,” he advised. “Simply put, Japan has yet to see the enormous merit of having an autopsy system that values transparency.”
Iwase believes the reluctance of the police to provide key information, such as autopsy reports, to next of kin is symptomatic of a wider problem in Japanese police culture, which he calls “overly secretive.”
“The police don’t want the public to know the manner in which they carry out investigations. This is the case with all aspects of the investigation process.
“For example, they are often reluctant to record on video parts of their investigation, such as interviewing suspects or processing the crime scene.
“Using video in these kinds of situations is standard procedure in most other countries.”
Professor Koichi Uemura, who performed the autopsy on Scott Kang, declined the opportunity to comment for this story, saying Japanese legal regulations for judicial autopsies prohibit forensic pathologists from discussing individual cases, as the autopsy results form part of a criminal investigation.
Officers at Shinjuku Police Station also declined to comment, saying they are not permitted to speak directly to journalists who are not members of the police press club.
Many thanks to James Benson for his translation assistance. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org