The murder trial more than half a century ago of Matsuo Fujimoto, a man afflicted with leprosy, was a bizarre affair.
Due to fears of infection, court proceedings were virtually closed to the public. The trial was not held in a courtroom but at an isolated, government-run rehabilitation facility for leprosy patients, and evidence materials were handled not by hand but with tongs.
Fujimoto maintained his innocence but was sentenced to death, with his attorney absent. The sentence did not mention any specific reason for meting out the death penalty.
The convict was executed, at the age of 40 on Sept. 14, 1962, the day after his third appeal for a retrial was rejected.
Lawyer Yasuyuki Tokuda, 70, asserts that the extraordinary circumstances of the trial were a consequence of the government’s “severe isolation policy” against people with leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease.
Now, over 50 years after Fujimoto was executed, a group of lawyers and supporters for leprosy patients have sought to file an application for a posthumous retrial in the case. Tokuda, who believes Fujimoto was innocent, is heading the group.
Fujimoto was born in 1922 to a poor farming family in a rural area of Kumamoto Prefecture. His father died young, so his family could not afford to have him receive a formal education following two years of elementary school.
Fujimoto is believed to have been diagnosed with leprosy when he underwent a physical examination for conscription after the start of World War II. The diagnosis, as well as an eyesight problem, apparently made him unfit for the draft.
During the war, he was a valuable presence for his neighbors in a rural community starved of young men who could be depended on when someone strong was required to do heavy work, said Yasushi Shimura, an acquaintance of Fujimoto.
Toward the end of the war, Fujimoto married and the couple then had a daughter. But his fortunes suddenly took a turn for the worse in 1950, when the municipal office recommended he be admitted to an isolated facility for leprosy patients.
In a desperate attempt not to be consigned to the facility and to avoid the stigma of leprosy, Fujimoto visited major hospitals to seek medical opinions clearing him from the ignominy associated with the disease.
In August 1951, an explosion occurred at the home of the municipal official who had recommended Fujimoto’s isolation. Fujimoto was arrested for attempted murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison although he pleaded not guilty.
He escaped from prison in June 1952 while his appeal was pending. The following month, the same official was found dead with dozens of stab wounds, and not long afterward, Fujimoto was found and arrested.
The evidence against him was apparently not airtight.
No bloodstains were found either on a dagger alleged to have been used by him in the murder or on the clothes he was presumed to have been wearing at the time of the killing, according to Tokuda.
Fujimoto pleaded not guilty to all charges against him. But his attorney, who was appointed by the state because he could not afford his own, agreed with all the evidence presented by the prosecution. Conspicuously absent from Fujimoto’s sentencing — at which he was condemned to death — was his state-appointed lawyer.
The case took place against a backdrop of persistent prejudice and discrimination against leprosy patients and lingering misconceptions about the disease. Leprosy is a chronic bacterial condition that mainly affects the skin and nerves. But it is not highly contagious and is treatable. An effective drug to treat the disease was developed in the U.S. in 1941 and at-home care replaced isolated rehabilitation there as the preferred method of treatment.
And although the same drug was introduced in Japan in 1948, social ostracism against leprosy patients continued and even grew as the government promoted isolation under a law intended to contain the perceived threat of the disease.
An initiative to root out leprosy by confining patients to isolation swept through the country, with more and more wards created in remote areas.
National Sanatorium Kikuchi Keifuen, where Fujimoto was held during his trial, was expanded to accommodate an additional 1,000 patients. To fill vacancies in the expanded rehabilitation facility, Kumamoto’s administrative authorities launched a campaign to hunt down leprosy patients.
Both Shimura and Tokuda point to that movement as a critical factor in Fujimoto’s case.
The government isolation policy officially ended in 1996 with the abolition of the anti-leprosy law. In 2001, the Kumamoto District Court recognized that the policy was unconstitutional and awarded damages to leprosy patients who sued the central government.
“That was when the war ended for Hansen’s disease patients at long last,” Shimura said.
While Fujimoto’s surviving family members have been reluctant to have his story brought back into the spotlight, Tokuda said he will pursue the application for a posthumous retrial, expressing outrage at the way the judicial system handled the case.
“Unless this case is resolved, we lawyers can’t be forgiven,” he said.