Lawyers work to undermine death penalty

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo News

In the face of recent revelations of wrongful accusations, lawyers involved in capital cases are calling for abolition of the death penalty, arguing at a Tokyo gathering that innocent people could be hanged.

Lawyer Yasuyuki Tokuda, who is working to reopen the case of an executed man, told the 80 members of the audience Saturday that even though reopening the case will not help his client, such a move would “undermine the system of capital punishment.”

His client, Michitoshi Kuma, was convicted of kidnapping and killing two 7-year-old girls in Iizuka, Fukuoka Prefecture, in 1992 in what is known as the “Iizuka Case.” He was hanged in October 2008 at the age of 70 despite consistently claiming he was innocent.

One year after the execution, his widow filed an appeal for a retrial with the Fukuoka District Court, and Tokuda and his fellow lawyers have submitted to the court test results from a forensic expert that indicate Kuma’s DNA and blood type differed from that of the true culprit.

“I hope the court will retry the Iizuka Case and it will lead to the termination of the death penalty in Japan,” Tokuda said.

The meeting was organized by Forum 90, a group campaigning against the death penalty, after several acquittals following retrials, including the high-profile “Ashikaga Case,” in which a man convicted of killing a 4-year-old girl was acquitted this year after spending more than 17 years in prison. His DNA also didn’t match evidence found at the crime scene.

Another lawyer at the meeting was Takeyoshi Nakamichi, who is defending a 52-year-old man convicted of murdering his daughter-in-law and her son in the city of Osaka in 2002.

Takemitsu Mori was initially sentenced to life in prison by the Osaka District Court but was later sentenced to death by the Osaka High Court.

The Supreme Court nullified both rulings and sent the case back to the district court last April.

“It is extremely difficult to find him guilty based solely on the indirect evidence presented in the lower court rulings,” the Supreme Court ruled, raising the possibility that Mori could be acquitted unless prosecutors present strong evidence.

“The Supreme Court has set the legal hurdle higher for sentencing someone to death by ruling it is not enough only to accumulate ‘probabilities’ that a defendant may be the real culprit,” Nakamichi said. “Lower courts will no longer be able to hand down the death sentence without careful consideration.”

No death-row inmates have been executed since three were hanged July 28, 2009. Current Justice Minister Keiko Chiba is cautious about executions.

However, Chiba, a former member of the Japan Parliamentary League against the Death Penalty, may be replaced soon because she lost her Diet seat in the July 11 Upper House election. Campaigners against the death penalty are now focusing on whether her successor will follow her stance or resume executions.