Lessons from Osaka arson case

The retrial granted to an Osaka couple jailed for 20 years over a 1995 arson and murder has again shown that investigation authorities’ reliance on confessions rather than hard evidence can lead to false charges and wrongful convictions. It is now likely that the pair, who were released from prison this week, will be formally acquitted of the crime in the retrial process. Relevant authorities should not only get to the bottom of the crime itself but also examine why the two had been convicted despite doubts about their guilt that should have been explored in the first place.

Keiko Aoki, 51, and Tatsuhiro Boku, 49, her common-law husband, were arrested in September 1995 on suspicion of setting fire two months earlier to Aoki’s house in Osaka, and killing the woman’s 11-year-old daughter, who was taking a bath, to collect ¥15 million from a life insurance policy taken out on the girl.

Although they both were said to have confessed to the allegations at one point during questioning by police officers and prosecutors, the pair insisted on their innocence throughout their trials. But the Osaka District Court sentenced them to life imprisonment in 1999, a decision upheld by the Osaka High Court in 2004 and finalized by the Supreme Court two years later.

The two filed a request for a retrial in 2009. Their defense counsel argued that Boku’s initial confession to interrogators that he scattered gasoline in a garage adjacent to the bathroom at the house and set it on fire with the intention of killing the girl could not be trusted.

In 2011, the lawyers reproduced the act of arson based on what Boku told the investigators — that he first scattered gasoline in the garage and lit a lighter. But in the reproduction held under the same setting as the house, the gasoline was set alight by the pilot burner of the bathtub water heater before it had all been scattered, and the fire instantly spread, turning the garage into a sea of flames. This showed that it was unlikely that the perpetrator himself would have escaped unhurt. In the court proceedings on the retrial request, the couple’s defense said there is a strong possibility that gasoline leaking from a car parked in the garage caught fire from the pilot burner and spread to the bathroom. A prosecution’s re-enactment of the alleged act on the basis of the confession produced the same results as shown in the defense test.

The district court sided with the defense argument and decided on a retrial in 2012. The prosecution filed a prompt appeal, but the high court on Oct. 23 upheld the district court decision — ruling more in favor of the accused by mentioning the possibility of the fire having been caused by combustion of the fuel leaking from the car — and suspended the life prison terms of Aoki and Boku. They were released from prisons in Wakayama and Oita, respectively, this week, and the Osaka High Public Prosecutor’s Office gave up appealing the decision to the Supreme Court, formally opening the process for a retrial.

In convicting Aoki and Boku, the courts concerned took the position that the confession — that they conspired to carry out the arson and murder to collect life insurance money on the girl — was credible. But in its latest decision, the high court said that the motive was unnatural in view of the household’s relatively stable financial situation and the fact that there was no concrete evidence to substantiate the confession. The high court’s fourth criminal division said Oct. 23 that since the possibility of the two convicts’ innocence is high, it “runs counter to justice” to continue their imprisonment, which had continued for 20 years since their arrest.

The couple’s financial situation and the fact that the bathtub water heater in the house had a pilot burner must have been known to the investigators in the first place. But the police, the prosecution and the courts did not pay sufficient attention to these facts. They should scrutinize their actions and determine why they were unable to view the case from a different perspective and find out the truth. If the prosecution had at the start of its investigation tried to replicate the act of arson based on Boku’s confession, it would have seen the flaws in his confession that put its voluntary nature in doubt, and the apparent false charge could have been avoided. The police, the prosecution and the courts should seriously take the principle that any doubtful point in a criminal case should be interpreted in favor of the accused.

Investigators should never try to extract a confession from a suspect in a manner that conforms to a predetermined scenario. Yet false charges based on coerced false confessions happen time and again.

The retrial for the Osaka arson and murder case underlines the need to expand the scope of electronic recording of confessions made by suspects and witnesses. Such recording is limited to cases subject to lay judge trials, which include such serious crimes as murder, fatal assaults and burglaries, arson and rape, and to cases handled by public prosecutor’s offices from the beginning. But such cases account for only 3 percent of all cases handed by investigative authorities.

The government should also make the prosecution disclose all the evidence in its possession to the court to ensure the fairness of trials and retrials.

  • Ron Lane

    The judicial system in this country has been a mystery to me for as long as I’ve lived here. This editorial suggests the confession was coerced. If so, has there been any investigation into the prosecutors who produced the confession? Have other cases involving the same prosecutors been examined to determine if coercion was involved? These are common sense suggestions and yet the editorial makes no mention of them in spite of the fact that coerced confessions is the editorial’s topic.

    Editorials like this one are quite common. So what changes are being made in the prosecutors’ office to mediate the problem?

  • Liars N. Fools

    Japanese judges and prosecutors become such through examination and have narrow backgrounds usually from elite universities. This mindset of elitism is probably mostly a good thing, but it can also lead to the mindset that because they are so smart they should not be second guessed, which is a factor in why the vast majority of criminal appeals fail.

    I am happy that this case has produced a retrial, but would also wonder whether the social chasm between the judicial culture and the lifestyle of the couple in question may not have led to the prosecutors to grind forward.