Improving Japanese justice

The issue of false charges once again reared its ugly head in Japan’s criminal justice system last year. The cases revealed that inappropriate investigation methods by the police and the prosecution are still in use.

The most effective way to reduce the chance of false charges being levied would be to electronically record the entire interrogation process and require that the prosecution disclose all evidence in their possession to defense lawyers and the court.

These two steps alone would solve most problems related to false charges. To overcome resistance to such a change, the Diet should revise the Criminal Procedure Law to make the police and the prosecution disclose all evidence they possess. A legal provision should be introduced either to punish public prosecutors who fail to disclose all their evidence to defense lawyers and the court, or to deprive them of their license to work in the prosecution. The government also must require that interrogations be recorded in their entirety.

On Nov. 7, the Tokyo High Court, in a retrial, eventually acquitted Mr. Govinda Prasad Mainali, a Nepalese man convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the March 1997 robbery-murder of a 39-year-old female employee of Tokyo Electric Power Co. The retrial pointed to the overwhelming possibility that a third person at the scene of the crime was the perpetrator. The acquittal came 15½ years after he was arrested.

The prosecution did not disclose important evidence at the outset of Mr. Mainali’s trial. Only in September 2010 did it reveal its possession of a piece of frozen gauze containing semen taken from the victim’s body, which a subsequent DNA test revealed was not Mr. Mainali’s.

When Mr. Mainal’s lawyers had called on the prosecution in 2007 to examine the DNA of biological matter found under the woman’s fingernails, the prosecution refused. Only in October 2012 after the high court’s decision to retry him did the prosecution belatedly carry out a DNA test, which revealed a match with the semen found in the woman’s body. If all the evidence had been disclosed at the outset of the original trial, Mr. Mainali would never have been found guilty.

In October, it surfaced that the police had mistakenly arrested four people in connection with threats posted on the Internet. The police admitted their error after it became evident that the threats had been made by a still-unknown person who hacked their computers — but not before the police had extracted confessions from two of the four suspects. One confession described the suspect’s alleged crime in detail, even though he had not committed any crime. This suggests that coercion and threats still play a role in investigations.

In the case of alleged irregular reports by Rikuzankai, the political fund management body for former DPJ leader Mr. Ichiro Ozawa, a public prosecutor included in his investigation report fictitious questions and answers between him and one of Mr. Ozawa’s former secretaries. This behavior only came to light because the secretary secretly recorded his interrogation.

In principle, the whole process of interrogation of both suspects and witnesses should be electronically recorded. The National Police Agency and the Justice Ministry must be made to move in this direction.