Hase killer still at large, lawyer fears

Confession of 'shonen A,' link to taunting letters questioned

by Eric Johnston

KOBE — The May 1997 murder of 11-year-old Jun Hase in Suma Ward here shocked Japan and made world headlines for the sensational nature of the crime.

That shock soon turned to anger after police arrested a 14-year-old boy in the killing, sparking a national debate on juvenile crime, as parents, schoolteachers and the public pondered the forces that drove the youth to strangle, and later behead, his victim. The fatal attack on a girl earlier the same year was also subsequently blamed on the boy, who was suffering emotional problems and had allegedly killed cats and other animals before the slayings.

Today, the youth, known euphemistically as “shonen A,” is incarcerated at a psychiatric center in the Kanto region. The fact that he confessed to the murder should remove any doubt of his culpability. Or should it?

At least one Tokyo-based lawyer who is leading a campaign to reopen the case is not so sure.

“Virtually all Japanese believe shonen A is guilty because he confessed,” Shojiro Goto pointed out. “But serious questions remain about how the investigation was conducted, questions that lead me to believe the boy was framed.”

Goto made his name as a human rights lawyer after helping overturn a court ruling over the 1949 Matsukawa Incident, in which a train derailment near Matsukawa, Fukushima Prefecture, led to the deaths of three people. He proved police had framed 20 people — members of a Toshiba union and the National Railway Workers’ Union.

At the time, police and railway officials claimed communist-supported union members had deliberately sabotaged the tracks. All the workers were initially found guilty and five received the death penalty. Police evidence, however, was based solely on the confession of a 19-year-old former railroad worker.

Partially through Goto’s efforts, the case was retried and subsequently reached the Supreme Court, which upheld a high court ruling that the testimony was false and had been obtained by illegal means. All 20 defendants were found innocent and released 14 years after the incident took place.

Goto retired from active legal practice several years ago but decided to get involved in the shonen A case after reviewing the evidence.

In its ruling handed down in October 1997, the Kobe Family Court noted that handwriting experts could not determine whether a letter allegedly written by the killer taunting police and delivered to local media was the work of the boy.

“As a result, an arrest warrant (specifically for the Hase case) could not be issued and police had to rely on the (boy’s) confession,” the court said.

“Police took the boy away for questioning without charging him. There were no lawyers present during the interrogation and the boy was not allowed to see his family,” Goto pointed out.

It was subsequent events, however, that spurred Goto’s involvement in the case.

“In response to a question from the boy about what solid evidence connected him to the crime, the police showed him a copy of the letter. They explained that handwriting experts had indicated shonen A’s handwriting was the same as the person’s who wrote the letter,” the Kobe Family Court ruling said.

“The youth, thinking that there was solid evidence, began crying and confessed to the crime. But for police to explain (the reasons for suspecting shonen A) in this manner was illegal,” the court ruled.

The confession was therefore struck as evidence.

“This admission by the court that what the police did was illegal made me realize there were parallels between the way the police extracted a confession from shonen A and the way the 19-year-old in the Matsukawa case confessed,” Goto said.

In 1998, Goto and several other lawyers, along with a linguistic scholar and two professors, filed a complaint against Hyogo Prefectural Police and the Kobe District Prosecutor’s office, charging they had abused their authority as public servants. Their case is now being considered by the Kobe District Court.

While admitting that shonen A has serious mental problems and noting that he apologized to the parents of the slain girl, Goto remains convinced that he is innocent of the Hase murder.

But neither he nor the other lawyers in the case can answer a very basic question: Why would police want to shock the public by framing a youth for a murder that, at the time, most people thought had been committed by an adult? Media reports based on police leaks spoke of witnesses spotting a male in his 40s carrying black trash bags in the vicinity of the murder, and of an unidentified black car.

“That’s a very difficult question. One that we hope will eventually be answered by police,” Goto said.