A court ruling last fall changed a man’s life. After Hiroshi Yanagihara was found guilty of rape in Toyama Prefecture and served about two years in prison, the Toyama District Court’s Takaoka Branch officially found him not guilty.
In a rarity, the prosecutors, the court and the defense were on the same page: Yanagihara’s confession had been coerced. Another man was charged with the crimes. But another feature of the retrial was that the court, although it cleared the defendant, refused his counsel’s demand to question the investigators who forced the confession.
According to Kyohei Imai, one of the writers for the new magazine Enzai File (Falsely Accused File), the Toyama miscarriage of justice is only the tip of the iceberg.
Feb. 1 marked the kickoff for Enzai File, published by Qbrick. Unlike the usual gambling magazines Qbrick puts out, Enzai File is a no-nonsense publication focusing on analyses of criminal cases, mainly in Japan, in which the guilt of the accused is in doubt. The magazine, published every three months, is sold in 5,000 major bookstores nationwide.
“Are there enough false-accusation cases to publish this magazine every three months? Unfortunately, yes,” Imai said. “There are many (cases) that are still buried or people who are enduring false accusations in bitter silence.”
Imai added, however, that there are very few legally judged wrongful convictions.
Consider the case of Govinda Prasad Mainali, a Nepalese man serving a life sentence for the 1997 murder of a 39-year-old woman who was an employee of Tokyo Electric Power Co. by day and a prostitute by night. The Tokyo District Court acquitted him in 2000, but the Tokyo High Court overturned the ruling and the Supreme Court upheld his sentence.
Throughout his imprisonment in Yokohama, Mainali has maintained his innocence and filed for a retrial in March 2005. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations took up his case and is giving him legal preparatory support.
Enzai File ran a 20-page analysis of the case, explaining what happened and going over evidence and issues discussed during the previous trials. It also provided an update on Mainali’s mother, wife and two daughters waiting for him in Nepal.
“The pain of having been found guilty of a crime that he or she did not commit, to be determined a criminal, is immense . . . not only for (the convicted) but also for the family members,” Imai said. “I wanted to shed light on how deep a false accusation affects the person and his or her family.”
But both Imai and Masaru Takasaki, president of Qbrick, said it is very difficult choosing cases to write about in the magazine because most have not undergone a retrial yet.
Imai pointed out that one important standard is whether there is proof of guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
“We don’t want to force people into believing which cases involve false convictions,” Imai said. “We just want to present a question mark to a ruling if there is reasonable doubt.”
The first issue of Enzai File looks at the case of a man who was found guilty by a district court of groping but then was acquitted at the high-court level in December 2002. He talks about the how his life suddenly changed after he was accused.
Imai pointed out that several cases were legally recognized as wrongful convictions last year, including the Toyama rape case.
“The timing was perfect (to publish the magazine) because people’s eyes were turned toward” the issue, Imai said.
Responding to the spate of apparent unfounded accusations, including the Toyama rape case, the National Police Agency issued a guideline last week on monitoring interrogations of suspects to prevent forced confessions — a prime source of wrongful convictions. But it will be police monitoring police, without the participation, as has been demanded in some quarters, of outside parties videotaping the grillings.
The guideline stipulates that a new supervisory division will be set up outside each prefectural police investigation bureau. Members of these new sections will be able to monitor interrogations through one-way glass that must be set up in all interrogation rooms.
The new policy also bans investigators from exercising direct or indirect force, and “saying or doing things that severely harm the suspect’s dignity.” Violating the policy is subject to reprimand.
While transparency of interrogations is important, Imai said, a bigger impact on police and prosecutors would come if the courts would start taking a closer look at evidence.
“It’s true that police do fishy things and fabricate evidence,” Imai said. “But the judges should be able to determine whether such evidence is nonsense. . . . If the courts would actually acquit when there is reasonable doubt, police and prosecutors would change.”
Imai and Takasaki pointed to another major reason they decided to publish the magazine now — the “saibanin” or lay judge system.
Next year, Japan will open a new chapter to the criminal court system — ordinary citizens will be participating in the judicial system for the first time in the postwar period.
A panel of six citizens and three judges will oversee serious cases with the verdict determined by a majority vote.
“Whether the lay judges will be able to truly judge from the viewpoint that suspicion alone is not grounds for punishment will be a serious issue,” Imai said.
Criminal trial verdicts in the United States are made solely by jurors drawn from the public and the decisions must be unanimous. Depending on the case and the state, sentencing, especially in capital cases, can be determined or recommended by juries.
Under the saibanin system, however, the six lay judges along with the three professional judges will not only come to a verdict but will also determine the sentence.
“The more I learn about the system, the more doubt I have as an amateur (in legal affairs) about handing down an appropriate sentence,” Takasaki said. “Professional judges carefully study various judicial precedents before coming to a proper conclusion. But we are regular citizens, mere amateurs.”
Takasaki said that until the idea for Enzai File came along, he knew little about wrongful convictions and the lay judge system. He stressed that he wants the magazine to reach out to people like him, to stir interest and provide an understanding of the legal system in preparation for saibanin.
“I hope (this magazine) will become a handbook for people to develop their own thoughts and judgment because (each ruling by lay judges) will have a major impact on (the defendant’s) life,” Takasaki said.