Acquittal instead of death

Public prosecutors in Kagoshima had sought the death penalty for a 71-year-old man who was accused of murdering and robbing an elderly couple in their home in the city in June 2009. But six lay judges and three professional judges at the Kagoshima District Court acquitted him on Dec. 10, marking the first acquittal in a lay judge trial in which the death penalty had been sought. The trial lasted 40 days — extremely long for a lay judge trial.

The defendant, Mr. Masahiro Shirahama, denied the charges at the time of his arrest, during the interrogations and throughout the trial. He had no alibi. But there were no eye-witnesses and no evidence that linked him to the murder, although his DNA, fingerprints and palm prints were found in the couple’s home.

The judges should be praised for correctly giving the defendant the benefit of the doubt, upholding the principle in a criminal trial that no punishment is meted out when there is uncertainty about guilt. The police and prosecution should humbly accept the ruling, which casts strong doubt on their investigation and arguments on the case.

The prosecution charged that Mr. Shirahama beat the 91-year-old husband and the 87-year-old wife to death with a shovel in order to rob them. The ruling admitted that the DNA, fingerprints and palm prints showed that the defendant had in the past touched a screen window, a window pane and a chest of drawers in the house. But it said the fact that no traces of the defendant were found on the shovel while traces of the victims were found on the implement undermined the prosecution’s argument that Mr. Shirahama was the perpetrator.

The ruling also said that because cash was left at the crime scene in easy-to-find places, it is doubtful that the perpetrator aimed to rob the couple as the prosecution argued. The ruling said that the situation rather showed that the perpetrator murdered the couple out of rancor toward the couple.

Pointing out that footprints of investigators were left at the crime scene and that they failed to take photos of them collecting evidence at the home, the court doubted whether investigators fully carried out the investigation as required.

The ruling serves as a reminder to authorities that they must faithfully follow the basics of investigative procedures.