Top court issues groping acquittal

Professor 'thankful' of being cleared in first appeal to overturn upheld molestation conviction

Kyodo News

The Supreme Court has acquitted a college professor of groping a high school girl on a train, marking the first time the top court has overturned a guilty verdict in a molestation case.

The Tuesday ruling by the Third Petty Bench overturned lower court rulings that threatened to put Masahiro Nagura, a professor of Japanese intellectual history at National Defense Medical College, in prison for 22 months.

Nagura, 63, has been suspended from teaching since the indictment. He said after the ruling that the top court’s verdict “rid me of the feelings of distrust I had against the judicial system. . . . I couldn’t stop crying. All I was able to say to my wife was ‘Thanks.’ “

“I’m thankful for the not-guilty verdict on my case. But I have no appropriate words to express my feelings about people who have been branded as criminals (through wrongful accusations) and their families,” he said.

The case turned on the credibility of the girl’s testimony, which three of the five justices found fault with.

According to the majority opinion of the court, it was unnatural for the girl, who testified that the groping began before the Odakyu Line train arrived at Seijogakuenmae Station, to get off the train and board it again at the same station, and then to stand near the professor.

However, Justice Mutsuo Tahara, who presided over the bench, and another justice dissented, saying the girl’s testimony was “trustworthy.”

“It’s regrettable (the top court) denied that the victim’s testimony was credible. But we will take the court’s decision seriously,” said Masayuki Ikegami, head of the division in charge of trials at the Supreme Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Yukiko Tsunoda, a lawyer knowledgeable about sexual crimes targeting women, said the ruling was “based on ancient and false assumptions” that a woman who pleads that she has been sexually assaulted tends to make false statements. “The girl has no reason to make up a story that she has been molested,” Tsunoda said.

The top court called on the lower courts to make “a careful judgment” in cases involving groping on packed trains because it is often difficult to gather objective evidence and the depositions by the alleged victims tend to serve as the only evidence.

This is the first opinion presented by the Supreme Court on how to examine a groping case, and it is expected to influence future investigations and decisions, observers said.

According to Nagura’s lawyer, there have been more than 30 molestation cases across the nation in which the accused was acquitted since 1998.

Looking back on the past three years since his arrest in April 2006, Nagura said he “feels resentment” at the way the lower courts handled the case, asking, “How dare they make light of a person’s life?”

Nagura said that after the high court handed him a 22-month prison term, the presiding judge told him he “still had the Supreme Court” to appeal to if he wanted to continue the battle.

Nagura was charged with molesting the girl, who was then 17, on the morning of April 18, 2006.

According to Nagura, the girl grabbed his tie without warning and screamed, “This person is a groper!”