Former Liberal Democratic Party policy chief Shizuka Kamei’s earlier 15-year stint as a senior officer in the National Police Agency convinced him of the possibility that not everyone who is sentenced to hang is guilty.
Suspects tend to break down during intense police interrogations and eventually admit to whatever investigators claim, the veteran lawmaker and LDP heavyweight said.
“When I was in command of investigations, I saw this many times, almost getting some suspects wrongly accused,” said Kamei, 65, who heads a nonpartisan group of 122 Diet members opposing the death penalty.
Kamei is not talking about forced confessions per se, but an interrogation pattern under which investigators grill a suspect based on a predetermined theory. The suspect is gradually driven into an unavoidable corner, he said.
Under the criminal justice system, prosecutors and judges have long placed too much importance on confessions, he said, and judges put too much faith in prosecutors.
“Even if accused murderers deny in court what they ‘confessed’ to during interrogations, judges tend to attach importance to the confessions instead of the defendants’ testimony in court,” Kamei said, emphasizing there is always the risk that innocent people are sent to death row.
For the sake of maintaining a safe society, Kamei asked, is it justifiable to potentially put innocent lives at risk?
“I believe public safety would not be undermined if the death penalty was abolished,” he said.
Kamei is confident a majority of the 727-member Diet would support a bill to abolish capital punishment.
“I believe there are many lawmakers who support the introduction of life prison terms without the possibility of parole as a replacement for capital punishment,” although some may oppose dropping the death penalty right away, Kamei said.
The nonpartisan group of lawmakers to which he has belonged since it was founded in 1994 has been discussing alternatives to capital punishment. Life in prison without parole is probably the key.
The group started with 117 members but dropped to about 50 members following the series of heinous crimes committed by Aum Shinrikyo in the mid-1990s. Membership increased to 122 after Kamei assumed the helm, accelerating the movement toward submitting the bill to the Diet.
The possibility that innocent people could be put to death is not the only reason why Kamei strongly opposes capital punishment.
Even if guilt is not in doubt, Kamei still believes the state should not have the right to kill in the name of justice.
Although it is only natural that people victimized by crime seek vengeance through the courts, they must get over their hatred and learn to forgive criminals to end the chain of hostility, he said.
When a nation legitimizes capital punishment, this sends the message that killing is an acceptable way to resolve social problems, and that runs contrary to the government’s condemnation of violence and advocacy of world peace, Kamei said.
“We must stop avenging and try to come to a nonviolent settlement instead,” Kamei stressed. “Retaliating will only do our civilization harm.”
Good and evil coexist in humans, he said, noting that even those who have committed violent crimes can be rehabilitated.
“Prisons are supposed to be places not only for punishment, but also for rehabilitating convicts so they can eventually re-enter society,” Kamei said, adding that time, tolerance and patience is needed for rehabilitating criminals, especially the unrepentant.
Kamei believes that in many cases, perpetrators of heinous crimes are a product of society, including family and economic circumstances.
“Have you ever experienced the emotion of wanting to kill someone? Well, I have,” he said, adding that anyone could be put in abnormal circumstances that lead them to commit a crime.
That is why he believes society as a whole must make the effort to give murderers another chance instead of just putting them to death.
“If a country doesn’t protect lives and have respect for human dignity, it can’t have a bright future,” he said.