Had legal professionals over the past two decades followed the basic principles of law and given accused killer Toshikazu Sugaya the benefit of the doubt, he may not have suffered the miscarriage of justice that put him behind bars for more than 17 years, experts say.
The Utsunomiya District Court finally exonerated Sugaya in a retrial ruling Friday.
Toshikuni Murai, a law professor at Ryukoku University, said judges, prosecutors and even Sugaya’s first defense lawyer failed to listen to the defendant.
“If they had carefully reviewed his denial before the retrial, it wouldn’t have taken this long (for the acquittal) and the judges wouldn’t have had to apologize.”
Sugaya was acquitted nearly 18 years after he was sentenced to life for the murder of Mami Matsuda, 4, in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture.
Presiding Judge Masanobu Sato ruled that the initial DNA tests and Sugaya’s confession, which were entered as evidence, lacked credibility, and that it was clear the accused was not the killer.
Murai asserts that the proper use of forensic evidence such as DNA samples can be key to determining innocence.
But Murai warns against relying too much on DNA to prove guilt because even though testing methods have improved, the results can still end up supporting a wrongful conviction.
“DNA tests are about probability, thus it is crucial not to (place all faith in such science),” Murai said. “If DNA has to be used as evidence of guilt, it should only be entered as a complement of other evidence.”
Failure to videotape interrogations in full has been cited as another factor leading to Sugaya’s wrongful conviction.
Although prosecutors have begun partial videotaping of interrogations, they argue against complete recordings, claiming suspects will not speak the truth if they know they are being taped.
But Osamu Niikura, a law professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, said Sugaya’s retrial, at which audiotapes of his interrogation were played, in fact demonstrates that this argument lacks credibility.
Judge Sato and his two colleagues on the panel stood and apologized to Sugaya with a deep bow after their ruling.
“We are truly sorry that we could not listen to your true voice and deprived you of your freedom for 17 1/2 years,” the judge said.
Sugaya’s retrial, which started in October, was unprecedented for the depth of the examination of witnesses and evidence allowed by the court, at the insistence of the defense team. The prosecution had argued that the questioning was unnecessary to speed the not guilty verdict, and thus benefit the wrongfully convicted, which is often the case with retrials.
“It was significant to examine the evidence because for the defendant, the retrial will lack meaning unless the court clarifies that the facts were wrong,” Murai said.
The evidence entered in the retrial included recordings of Sugaya’s interrogations, which revealed how the prosecutor controlled the conversation and the enormous pressure Sugaya was under.
“It was necessary to reveal to both the legal circle as well as the public that innocent people do make false confessions,” Murai said, noting the case also revealed the need for complete videotaping and recording of the now closed-door interrogations.
Niikura of Aoyama Gakuin believes the fact that the court held a retrial with the examination of evidence, with the apology attached, demonstrates an awareness of increasing interest among the public toward the justice system since the lay judge system began last year.
At a time when the public is becoming involved in criminal trials as lay judges, the professionals must mend their faults if they want to regain public trust toward the system, he said.
“The Supreme Court and the Justice Ministry must fix the problem with the system. Otherwise, they won’t be able to win public trust,” Niikura said.