Murderer-for-insurance gets 25 years, DVD confession or no

by Jun Hongo

The Tokyo District Court sentenced a man to 25 years in prison for murder Wednesday in a case that drew national attention for allowing a recorded interrogation to be used as evidence for the first time.

The trial, in which former real estate agency employee Toshitaka Yamamoto, 56, was accused of setting up a murder-for-insurance scheme, brought into play a 10-minute DVD that showed him confessing during questioning by prosecutors.

Despite the confession, Yamamoto pleaded not guilty when his trial opened July 19. In handing down the verdict, presiding Judge Junko Takagi stated that Yamamoto played a key role in “organizing the appalling crime” and planned the murder of a colleague to swindle an insurance company.

“The accused became involved in the scheme just to obtain his share” of the benefits, Takagi said, rejecting Yamamoto’s claims he was not involved in the murder.

The court, however, did not attach great importance to the recorded interrogation on grounds that the brief footage “did not describe the circumstances of how the accused made the decision to confess his crimes.”

“The court cannot place too much value on the footage as substantial evidence, but can only consider it as support” for the prosecutors’ claims, Takagi said.

Yamamoto was convicted of conspiring with colleagues at his Tokyo-based real estate agency to murder coworker Takaaki Yushina after taking out a ¥100 million life insurance policy on him.

Yushina was found dead, shot in the head, near Manila in July 2005, but the insurer grew suspicious about his death and refused to pay the beneficiaries.

Yamamoto was found guilty of conspiring with Makoto Yoshii, president of the real estate agency and the principal offender in the case, to organize the murder.

The judge said the two got together with three other employees at the agency and asked the victim to join them on a trip to the Philippines, then shot him for the insurance.

On the DVD recording, Yamamoto can be seen confessing to organizing the conspiracy and saying he feels “relieved” about owning up to the allegations. He also states that he decided to acknowledge his involvement because Yoshii denied masterminding the plot.

The recorded interrogation was first screened as evidence during Yoshii’s trial in May, and later in Yamamoto’s trial, because Yamamoto changed his position and denied taking part in the murder when the trials began.

The prosecutors used the recording of the confession to demand a 30-year prison sentence for Yamamoto, saying the evidence was indisputable and had more credibility than his denials in court.

His attorneys, however, questioned the credibility of the DVD because it only captured a portion of the interrogation. They said the prosecutors may have screened the DVD for “only what would be convenient for them.”

The defense was not allowed access to or use of the recorded confession in court.

The court ruled that Yamamoto was involved in the murder plot from the early stages. It also said he was guilty of other cases of fraud, including faking car accidents to get insurance money.

Makoto Yoshii, the alleged architect of the slaying, is still awaiting a ruling from the district court. Yoshiyuki Tsukada, a colleague who is believed to have shot Yushina, committed suicide in police custody in August 2006.

Police first began recording portions of interrogations in July 2006 to help demonstrate how investigations are carried out and to prepare the judical system for the 2009 introduction of lay judges.