A travesty of justice

The Nagoya High Court on May 28 turned down the latest request for a retrial by Masaru Okunishi, an 88-year-old man on death row for the 1961 fatal poisoning of five women in Nabari, Mie Prefecture. The court cited a pro forma reason for rejecting his eighth retrial petition. Courts’ decisions on the case have changed twice in the decades-long history of the trial and retrial petitions. At one point, the high court itself hinted at the possibility that the crime might have been committed by a different person.

It is not far-fetched to say the high court ignored the principle of in dubio pro reo (“when in doubt, for the accused”). One is innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

The murders took place on March 28, 1961. At a community meeting in Nabari that evening, 17 women who drank white wine were poisoned. Five of them, including both Okunishi’s wife and girlfriend, died. Okunishi initially confessed that he had laced the wine with a pesticide to end a love triangle, but he retracted his confession before being indicted.

In 1964, the Tsu District Court acquitted him on the grounds that his confession to the police concerning his motives and preparations for the crime and the details of its actual commission seemed unnatural. But the Nagoya High Court sentenced him to death in 1969 mostly on the basis of the same evidence used in the first trial. The Supreme Court upheld the sentence in 1972.

The Nagoya High Court in April 2005 ordered a retrial of the case on the seventh petition by Okunishi’s defense. It stressed the unnaturalness of Okunishi’s confession and pointed to the possibility that the wine might have been laced with poison by a different person. But after the prosecution’s objection, the high court withdrew the decision.

Following Okunishi’s appeal to the Supreme Court, the top court in April 2010 ordered the Nagoya High Court to re-examine the retrial request. In May 2012, the high court eventually rescinded the original decision for starting a retrial.

In the seventh retrial request, the defense counsel for Okunishi argued that the type of pesticide he had confessed to using in carrying out the crime was different from the pesticide actually used in the murders, citing an expert opinion based on a test. The defense counsel’s efforts led to the Nagoya High Court’s initial order for a retrial in 2005.

For the latest retrial petition, Okunishi’s defense counsel resubmitted four expert opinions that it had submitted to the Supreme Court in the previous request, on the grounds that the top court had failed to examine them. But the Nagoya High Court turned down the plea, saying that submission of the same evidence twice for a retrial request is not acceptable under the Criminal Procedure Law.

While citing a pro forma reason for rejecting the retrial petition, the high court ignored the defense counsel’s request that the prosecution disclose several specific pieces of evidence it had not submitted to the court. It seems irrational for the court to have eliminated the chance to see such evidence by hastily turning down the retrial plea.

The defense counsel had also told the high court that it would submit in June the result of a new test as new evidence, but the court decided against a retrial without waiting for the new evidence. One cannot help suspecting that the court made the quick decision in order to block the submission of new evidence. The Nagoya High Court’s decision strengthens the case for making it obligatory for the prosecution to disclose all evidence in its possession in criminal trials and in examinations of retrial petitions. Such a procedure is absolutely necessary in order to uphold the principle of in dubio pro reo.