Hiroshi Yanagihara claims he was subjected to harsh interrogations while in custody in connection with rapes and attempted rapes he knew nothing about in Himi, Toyama Prefecture in 2002, pressured to confess and then sent up.
He is now campaigning to compel authorities to videotape what are currently closed-door interrogations.
“I was allowed to say only ‘yes’ during the interrogations,” Yanagihara, 41, said. “I couldn’t say ‘no’ or ‘that’s not true’ in front of the investigators, who maintained a threatening attitude, even though they didn’t actually behave violently.”
Out of fear, Yanagihara said he owned up to crimes he didn’t commit, confessing “in a slipshod manner.”
Sentenced to three years, he spent 1,005 days behind bars before being paroled in January 2005. He said his lawyer discouraged him from appealing the ruling.
In 2007, however, someone else confessed to the crimes, leading to a retrial and Yanagihara’s acquittal.
Yanagihara now thinks he would not have been convicted if he had been properly interrogated. “I believe that visual and audio recordings of the whole interrogation process are necessary to stop wrongful convictions. . . . The lay judge system should have been introduced on that basis.”
The lay judge system, which started May 21, requires citizens to serve with professional judges in trying serious crimes, ostensibly in an effort to inject more “common sense” into court deliberations.
The new system, however, was launched without training or preparation for ways to avoid wrongful convictions, such as those based on forced confessions made behind closed doors, and the videotaping of interrogations remains limited and reportedly focused only on a suspect’s formal admission of guilt, not the leadup grillings.
Before the new system took effect, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations presented a petition bearing more than 1 million signatures that demanded that the Diet enact a law making full recording of interrogations mandatory.
Makoto Teranaka, secretary general of Amnesty International Japan, backed this view, saying, “While the voluntary nature of defendants’ confessions is often disputed in criminal courts, this would be changed if full visual and audio recordings of the interrogation process are introduced.
“I believe such a system should be introduced regardless of the launch of the lay judge system,” he added.
Full recordings, meanwhile, will help citizen judges reach an appropriate decision in cases where a mentally disabled or intellectually deficient defendant is on trial, said Mikio Sato, a freelance journalist.
Sato, also a former teacher of impaired children, has issued reports on cases involving defendants with disabilities.
Citing the death of a 5-year-old girl in Togane, Chiba Prefecture, last September for which a man was charged with abduction, murder and dumping the corpse, Sato said that, based on interviews with the defendant’s lawyer and others, it is clear the accused is incapable of speaking for himself.
“Although he does not understand the difference between murder and accidental mortality, he seems just to follow what the investigators say.”
The defendant, in his early 20s, is believed to be intellectually disabled.
Although this case is not being tried by lay judges because the defendant was indicted before its launch, Sato said that was a good thing, given how interrogations are carried out.
“If citizen judges were trying him, I don’t think they would properly understand his remarks without seeing the full process of his interrogations,” Sato said.
“In a case involving an intellectually deficient defendant, I would be concerned whether the deposition presented to lay judges is really what the defendant told investigators or whether it is a ‘composition’ made by the investigators,” Sato said. “A deposition is still considered important evidence at a criminal court.”
Maiko Tagusari, a Tokyo-based lawyer, argued that while full recordings are essential, it is also necessary to allow defense lawyers to attend the interrogations and to end Japan’s so-called substitute prison system, or “daiyo kangoku,” in order to establish fair interrogations.
This system of pretrial police detention has drawn international condemnation because the experience is known to pressure innocent people into making false confessions.
“It is not acceptable to interrogate a suspect, particularly a disadvantaged one, under such an unfair system for long periods of time,” said Tagusari, who serves as secretary general of the Center for Prisoners’ Rights, a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization.
Toyama’s Yanagihara has traveled nationwide since his acquittal to publicize the need for fully recorded interrogations, having also filed a suit seeking about ¥100 million in damages from the state and the prefectural government, as well as a prosecutor and a police officer, arguing he was arrested and indicted based on an unlawful investigation.
According to his complaint, filed with the Toyama District Court, investigators ignored evidence that would have proved his innocence, including a phone record that established his alibi and footprints at the crime scenes that did not match his.