Interrogation recordings pinched

Aspecial panel of the Legislative Council, an advisory body to the justice minister, has included the need to electronically record the entire interrogation process for suspects in its outline of recommendations for reform of criminal investigation and court proceedings.

Although the move will pave the way for the first legislative step requiring police and prosecution investigators to make the interrogation of suspects in criminal cases transparent through such recordings, the scope of crimes in which the recordings will be mandatory is too limited.

The Justice Ministry should drastically enlarge the scope of the recording requirement. Among the matters taken up for the panel’s discussions over the past three years, electronic recording of the interrogation process was the biggest issue.

Establishment of the special panel was prompted by revelations that a prosecutor with the Osaka District Public Prosecutor’s Office had tampered with evidence in the case of Atsuko Muraki, now administrative vice minister of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, who had been charged with forging an official document, then acquitted in September 2010.

The panel members include Muraki and movie director Masayuki Suo, director of the 2007 feature film “Soredemo boku wa yatte inai” (I Just Didn’t Do It) — the story of a man falsely accused of groping a female junior high school student on a crowded train.

Although the panel’s original purpose was to find ways to prevent false charges by ensuring transparency of the interrogation process, its proposal fails to make it mandatory for police investigators and public prosecutors to electronically record the full interrogations of suspects in all crimes.

The panel’s outline of proposals says that complete electronic recordings should be made of interrogations in (1) crimes involving lay judge trials such as murder and burglary resulting in death, and (2) crimes dealt with by special investigative squads of the public prosecutors offices. These crimes combined account for only 2 to 3 percent of all criminal cases.

In addition, investigators will not be required to record an interrogation if they determine that the recording makes it impossible to obtain a meaningful confession from a suspect, or when a suspect belongs to an underworld organization and thus fears being targeted for retaliation from other mobsters because of what the suspect has said to investigators.

These conditions mean that, in most criminal cases handled by the police, investigators will not be required to electronically record questions to and answers from suspects under interrogation. During discussions by the special panel members, representatives of the police insisted that the electronic recording of interrogations would hamper investigators’ efforts to get solid confessions from suspects.

Having faced the strong resistance from the police, other panel members, including representatives of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, proposed that public prosecutors carry out complete recordings of all interrogations, while suggesting that the police start with cases involving lay judge trials with a view toward gradually expanding the scope of crimes in which full recordings of interrogations are made until all crimes are covered.

The end product was a compromise: The panel’s outline, in principle, states that full recordings should be made of interrogations in all criminal cases, but that recordings may be made on a limited scale for the time being.

There is another strong reason for expanding the scope of crimes in which interrogations are fully recorded. The panel’s separate call for the introduction of plea bargaining could increase the chances of suspects or defendants making false confessions and falsely implicating other people in crimes.

To help determine whether confessions in plea bargains are genuine or not, they should be recorded in their entirety.

The Justice Ministry should return to the original goal of making it obligatory to fully record interrogations in all crimes to make it as difficult as possible for false charges and false confessions to take place.