• Compiled from wire, staff reports

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YOKOHAMA — The Yokohama District Court on Friday ordered the Kanagawa Prefectural Government to pay 5 million yen in compensation to the family of a 55-year-old man who was shot dead by a police officer in 1997 during an interrogation.

The man, the head of a financial firm in Yokohama who also had ties with the underworld, was arrested in November 1997 on suspicion of possessing a handgun. He was shot dead with the same weapon Nov. 8, 1997, while being interrogated by two officers at Tobe Police Station in Nishi Ward, Yokohama.

Presiding Judge Tomio Sakurai dismissed a claim by the prefectural police that the man, whose name is being withheld, committed suicide in the interrogation room and ruled that he had in fact been accidentally killed by a sergeant who was interrogating him.

According to a police report, the gun and a bag of bullets were on a table in front of the man during the interrogation. When neither of the officers was looking, the man managed to take one of the bullets from the table, the report says.

Later, the report continues, when the sergeant was occupied filling out a report and the other officer had left the room to take a phone call, the man grabbed the gun from the table, loaded the bullet he had stolen earlier and shot himself in the chest.

The sergeant did not notice the man’s movement in time to do anything more than shout for him to stop, it says.

But the judge found this report unreasonable, saying the police station conducted a partial and unfair investigation into the case as well as destroying and distorting evidence.

The man’s 27-year-old daughter and her lawyers claimed that the sergeant more likely made the victim play Russian roulette with the handgun to scare him into confessing. They pointed out that it is highly unlikely that a suspect would be left in a position to freely handle a weapon during an interrogation. It is equally unlikely that he would have an opportunity to kill himself while an officer is in the same room, they added.

They also presented to the court forensic evidence proving that the gun was shot at a certain distance from the man, contradicting the police claim that he shot himself at point-blank range.

During the trial, police continually refused to provide crucial evidence, such as a fingerprint test of the gun, which was later found to carry none of the victim’s prints, or a detailed autopsy report.

The sergeant who fired the fatal shot and five other officers at the station were punished with minor administrative penalties for failing to prevent the man’s death. None of them were criminally charged in relation to the shooting. The sergeant now works at a different police station.

The man’s daughter lodged a damages suit against the prefectural government in February 1999, demanding 9.2 million yen in compensation, hoping the trial would unveil what actually happened.

In 2000, she filed a request with the Yokohama District Prosecutor’s Office to charge the police sergeant. Her request was refused.

The family also plans to file a request with a local committee charged with reviewing prosecutors’ decisions, asking it to re-examine the case.

After hearing the verdict, the victim’s daughter said she could not help crying after realizing the import of the judge’s ruling.

“Police will definitely appeal the case,” she said, “so we still need to hang on.”

Tsuneo Murata, a lawyer representing the family, praised the ruling as being the best that could have been expected.

“Much of the evidence was monopolized by police in this case, but the court judged it is in fact their responsibility to refute our claims,” he said.

He added that the ruling will have a positive impact on other civil suits against government entities, large corporations or others in positions of authority that usually monopolize relevant information.

Kazumi Sakuma, head of the prefectural police’s Audit Office, said it is regrettable that the court failed to accept the police force’s version of events. He said a decision on whether to appeal will be made after consulting with related organizations.

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