On death row and a cause celebre

The case of former boxer Iwao Hakamada casts a big spotlight on secretive system

by Chisaki Watanabe

The Associated Press

Iwao Hakamada, the longest serving death-row inmate, has insisted for 40 years he is innocent of the four murders he was convicted of. The evidence was suspect, he says, and his confession was coerced.

The judge who wrote the ex-boxer’s death sentence has all along also agreed with this position.

“My feelings about Mr. Hakamada remain the same — I believe he is innocent,” said Norimichi Kumamoto, who has revealed that he argued for acquittal but was outvoted by two other judges in their secret deliberations before handing down their ruling in 1968. As the junior judge, he was tasked with writing the death sentence order.

The case — and Kumamoto’s stunning admission last year — has fixed an unprecedented spotlight on the secretive criminal justice system, causing a stir in legal circles and raising questions about the death penalty in a country where it’s rarely questioned.

Among those clamoring for a retrial are Amnesty International, Japanese boxers and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the American boxer imprisoned nearly 20 years for three murders before the convictions were overturned.

The case has also illuminated all the elements that critics say make Japanese law enforcement inhumane: heavy-handed interrogations without lawyers present, over-reliance on confessions, an arbitrary capital punishment system that can keep inmates on death row for decades and then hang them with no advance notice.

Discussion of the case coincides with a rapid increase in the number of death sentences. Of 165 people on death row, seven have been executed so far this year, compared with just one in 2005.

Hakamada’s case began with a fire on June 30, 1966, at the home of an executive of a miso company in Shizuoka where he worked.

Hakamada said he helped douse the flames, whereupon the charred remains of the bodies of the executive, his wife and two children were discovered — all stabbed to death.

Two months later, Hakamada, then 30, was arrested and charged based on a confession and a pair of his pajamas that contained tiny amounts of blood and gasoline. He recanted the confession and pleaded not guilty at his trial. Prosecutors discarded the pajamas and presented a separate set of blood-soaked clothes they said he wore for the killings.

Hakamada, his supporters and now the dissenting judge argue the case was full of holes.

Hakamada says police kicked and clubbed him to get a confession. His lawyers say he was interrogated for 264 hours over 23 days, the longest session lasting 16 hours and 20 minutes. They say the exhausted Hakamada was denied water or bathroom visits during the interrogation.

“Investigators spent some 10 hours on average for about 20 days to get his confession. They wouldn’t have been doing something so stupid if they had had firm evidence,” Kumamoto said.

But an appeal to the Tokyo High Court and the Supreme Court failed to overturn the conviction.

The physical evidence also raises questions. When he tried on the pants that replaced the pajamas at his appeal, they didn’t fit him.

The murder weapon, a fruit knife with a 12.19-cm blade, should have been more damaged if it had been used to inflict more than 40 stab wounds on the victims, the skeptics argue.

“This is a typical case of finding an innocent man guilty of a false charge because the court trusts confessions made during investigations,” said Hideyo Ogawa, one of Hakamada’s lawyers.

Judges don’t disclose details of their consultations, and Kumamoto, now 70 and in retirement, has faced harsh criticism in legal circles for breaking his silence.

“I wanted someone in the Supreme Court to hear me just once at the end of my life,” Kumamoto said. “I’m glad I spoke up. I wish I had said it earlier, and maybe something might have changed.”

Hakamada’s supporters hope the judge’s reversal will turn the tide. The Supreme Court has turned down a request for a retrial, although his lawyers have resubmitted the petition for further consideration.

The Japan Pro Boxing Association hosted a charity event for Hakamada at a Tokyo gym in January, drawing nearly 1,300 people, according to organizers. Carter spoke in a videotaped message, saying, “It’s time to free Mr. Hakamada to show the people that you are a civilized society, and you can admit when a mistake has been made.”

But only four death-row inmates have won acquittal on retrial since World War II, the last in 1989. One waited 33 years and four months before being exonerated in 1983.

Death penalty proponents, however, including Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama, say the system has enough checks and balances to ensure justice is administered fairly.

Hakamada, now 72, has spent decades alone in a cell. His family says his mind has sharply deteriorated, and he frequently makes no sense when he speaks. But his family still clings to his past declarations of innocence.

“I will prove to you that your dad never killed anybody, and it is the police who know it best and it is the judges who feel sorry,” Hakamada wrote in a letter to his son in 1983. “I will break this iron chain and return to you.”