All interrogations must be taped: Sugaya

Closed grillings come under fire after wrongful convictions

by Setsuko Kamiya

Toshikazu Sugaya, convicted of murder in 1993 and freed from prison last June, and others believed wrongfully convicted are calling for full videotaping of police interrogations to help prevent crime suspects from being forced to make false confessions.

Their demands are shared by defense lawyers, who are strongly pushing to ensure interrogations are carried out in a transparent manner. They are now also demanding establishment of a public investigative body to review the causes of wrongful convictions and come up with measures to remedy flaws in the system and prevent further tragedies.

“I am really angry. For most people, anger usually winds down as time goes by. But it’s the opposite for me,” Sugaya said at an event organized by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations in Tokyo earlier this month. “I won’t forgive (the investigators and judges) until they apologize. But then, an apology won’t make everything all right.”

Sugaya was acquitted Friday by the Utsunomiya District Court, which ruled he was wrongly convicted for the murder of 4-year-old Mami Matsuda in 1990 in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture. Now 63, Sugaya spent more than 17 years of his life behind bars until he was freed last summer.

Sugaya served time for something he did not do because various factors came into play, including false confessions and an inaccurate DNA test that were used as evidence to get him convicted. Ironically, it was a recent DNA test on a hair sample smuggled out of his prison cell that got him off the hook.

Sugaya said police suddenly came to his home in Ashikaga in December 1991 and seemed certain from the onset that he was the murderer. He denied all the allegations against him, but he was taken to the police station, where a 13-hour interrogation behind closed doors soon followed.

“I denied, but they said there was evidence. I didn’t know what that was, but they said it would make things easier for me if I admitted,” he said at the gathering.

“I’m now stronger, but I was a timid man and I couldn’t (challenge them)” he said. Sugaya said the intense grilling drove him to the point of admission both physically and mentally and he confessed to what police wanted to hear.

At the time of the slaying, Sugaya was living with his parents and sister after a failed marriage. He had worked a variety of jobs but at the time of the incident he was bus driver for a kindergarten, work that he enjoyed.

He rented a small house in the city where he spent weekends alone. Police had visited him once after Matsuda was slain, but he did not realize they had staked him out for over a year before the arrest.

What police claimed was evidence turned out to be an inaccurate DNA test result.

Acting without a search warrant, police obtained a discarded tissue stained with Sugaya’s sperm from his garbage and sent it to the National Research Institute of Police Science. The institute said its DNA matched that of body fluid found on the victim’s discarded underwear. In court, prosecutors also pressed him based on the test results.

Sugaya said he could not rely on his first lawyer because that counsel believed he was guilty.

During his initial the Utsunomiya District Court trial in 1992, Sugaya at first denied his guilt but later retracted this and continued with the story that he murdered the girl. The court sentenced him to life in 1993.

It was after lawyer Hiroshi Sato came to his defense that Sugaya began to insist he was innocent. Sato was one of the few lawyers with a working knowledge of DNA at a time when such forensic evidence was still in its infancy here. Sato has said he was convinced at his first visit with Sugaya that his client was innocent, but admitted he harbored no suspicions about the early DNA test results.

Sato and his team fought hard to clear Sugaya, but the Tokyo High Court and the Supreme Court both denied the appeals. The courts also refused his counsel’s demand that a fresh DNA test be carried out — something that later led to his exoneration.

A fresh, exonerating DNA test came too late, however, for death-row convict Michitoshi Kuma, who was also absolved of guilt, in the slaying of two girls in Fukuoka Prefecture. He was hanged last October.

Forensics expert Katsuya Honda had been involved in both Sugaya’s and Kuma’s later, exonerating DNA tests.

At the retrial started last October, the Utsunomiya District Court, in a rare move, allowed Sugaya’s counsel to question witnesses, including the prosecutor who interrogated Sugaya and forensic experts. Recordings of the interrogations were also made public during the hearings.

Sugaya’s counsel said the questioning was necessary to clarify why the wrongful conviction happened and to restore Sugaya’s honor.

There have been several wrongful convictions in the past, including high profile cases in which four death-row inmates were acquitted in the 1980s.

Despite this, courts have continued to make the same mistakes because there is no system to hold those who pursue wrongful convictions accountable, said lawyer Kenzo Akiyama, who works on such cases.

Neither the chief justice of the Supreme Court nor prosecutor general have apologized for any of the high profile false accusations in the past, Akiyama noted. Judges who were involved in wrongful convictions have meanwhile been promoted, he added.

“There is a lack of will as a nation to prevent wrongful accusations,” he said.

But Japan is not unique when it comes to wrongful convictions. Experts said in many cases the causes are more or less similar, including false confessions, dodgy forensic evidence, eye witness mistakes and incompetent lawyers.

Another key factor that routinely raises suspicions about the validity of confessions in Japan is that interrogations, often marathon, are carried out behind closed doors and suspects are not allowed to have an attorney present.

If lucky, those wrongfully convicted may be acquitted in court. But what is still lacking in Japan is a system to investigate how gross violations of justice are committed in the first place, according to Makoto Ibusuki, law professor at Tokyo’s Seijo University, an expert in the field.

The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia have special commissions that were established in response to high profile wrongful convictions, Ibusuki explained at the bar association gathering.

These commissions are often independent in nature.

For example, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission reviews claims of innocence by convicts or others who have information that may lead to an acquittal. If the panel, consisting of legal professionals, victim advocates and academics, acknowledges a claim is accurate, they refer the case to a panel of judges.

In February, North Carolina judges acquitted a man who had been behind bars for 16 years, based on the recommendation of the innocence commission.

The commission has also made recommendations to revise the system to reduce or eliminate the possibility of wrongful convictions.

“Unless the retrial to acquit and reform measures are both in place, wrongful convictions will continue to occur,” Ibusuki said.

His opinion was echoed by Keiichi Muraoka, a lawyer and professor at Hitotsubashi University Law School who has studied reviews written by police and prosecutors in two recent wrongful conviction cases, in Toyama and Kagoshima prefectures.

Muraoka said that both police and prosecutors did not reflect on the fact that they forced the suspects to make confessions. Rather, it appears they believed the accused were at fault for making the false confessions in the first place, he said.

“There was no reflection that they were responsible for leading the person into making the confessions. It is impossible to fix the problem if this attitude prevails,” he said, stressing that a third party commission is necessary.

Muraoka added that this is also important for defense lawyers, because they also tend to be soft on their own criticism.

On March 19, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations submitted a paper to Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, urging the government to consider establishing a version of the innocence commission.

Sugaya’s lawyer Sato said in his closing argument in February that it is clear that neither Sugaya’s confessions nor the initial DNA test results had value as evidence. He blamed the judges and the prosecutor, investigative authorities as well as the first defense lawyers for failing to do their jobs properly. But he also blamed himself as well as the media.

“In the end, the tragedy of the Ashikaga Incident was not only one particular person’s fault, but everyone involved in the case had one way or another failed to do what they should have done, and did what they should not have done,” Sato said. “We should not criminalize an innocent person. Something is wrong with our justice system, and I am still looking for an answer.”

Chronology of Ashikaga Incident

UTSUNOMIYA, Tochigi Pref. (Kyodo)

May 13, 1990 — The body of Mami Matsuda, 4, is found on the banks of the Watarase River in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture. She had vanished the previous day.

Dec. 2, 1991 — Toshikazu Sugaya is arrested based on DNA test results.

Feb. 13, 1992 — Sugaya owns up to the slaying when his trial starts.

Dec. 22, 1992 — Sugaya pleads not guilty in court.

July 7, 1993 — Utsunomiya District Court sentences Sugaya to life.

May 9, 1996 — Tokyo High Court dismisses Sugaya’s appeal.

July 2000 — Supreme Court recognizes credibility of DNA test results, finalizing Sugaya’s life sentence.

Dec. 25, 2002 — Sugaya files petition for retrial at Utsunomiya District Court.

Feb. 13, 2008 — Sugaya’s appeal for retrial dismissed. His lawyers appeal to the Tokyo High Court.

December 2008 — High court decides to conduct new DNA test.

May 8, 2009 — High court presents new DNA test results to prosecution, defense.

June 4, 2009 — Sugaya released from prison.

June 10, 2009 — Supreme Public Prosecutors Office apologizes to Sugaya.

June 17, 2009 — Tochigi police chief directly apologizes to Sugaya.

June 23, 2009 — Tokyo High Court decides to open retrial.

Oct. 21, 2009 — Utsunomiya District Court retrial begins.

Feb. 12, 2010 — Prosecution asks to acquit Sugaya.

March 26, 2010 — Sugaya is acquitted.