HAYAKITA, Hokkaido – Calligraphy teacher Ritsuko Tada was used to the quiet life in small-town Hokkaido, but all that changed when one of her students was arrested on suspicion of murdering a female colleague.
“I was shocked by her arrest, but I could not believe she had been involved in the cruel murder,” said Tada, 52, who also runs a coffee shop in Hayakita, a town of 5,600.
Her belief in the innocence of her longtime student, Minako Okoshi, has deepened by her feeling that the investigation carried out by police and prosecutors was “unreasonable,” she said.
Okoshi, 32, was arrested on May 23, 2000, on suspicion of strangling a 24-year-old colleague and burning her body, allegedly out of jealousy because the victim tried to come between her and her boyfriend. She had repeatedly made harassing telephone calls to the victim’s mobile phone.
Okoshi has continuously insisted she is innocent. Her murder trial now concluded, she is awaiting the verdict. Prosecutors have demanded an 18-year prison term.
Tada said, however, that prosectors’ arguments raise numerous questions, leading her, her husband, Masahiro, 55, and Okoshi’s former classmates to come out in her support.
According to Tada, prosecutors insist Okoshi strangled the victim with a towel in her car “in the city of Chitose, Eniwa or their vicinity,” but investigators failed to find any evidence of the victim in the car, including hair, body fluids or fingerprints.
“Investigators could not specify the towel supposedly used to commit the crime,” Tada said. “It’s also unlikely that Minako, who is 14 cm shorter than the victim and whose fingers are shorter than ordinary people’s due to underdevelopment, could strangle the victim without injuring herself and leaving some evidence in her car.
“I could not accept (what was concluded by the) investigation,” she said.
Okoshi’s supporters went as far as conducting an experiment to prove her innocence by burning a pig.
They bought a dead 60-kg pig, doused it with 10 liters of kerosene and then burned it — as prosecutors claim Okoshi burned the victim’s body, which was believed to be around 53 kg, using the same amount of kerosene.
“Our experiment showed the pig, which already had all its blood and entrails removed, had lost about 9 kg after burning for one hour, while the victim’s body lost 30 kg even though it was less combustible than the pig carcass,” Tada said.
Lawyers for Okoshi did not submit the result of the experiment but did argue that 10 liters of kerosene is not enough to carbonize a corpse, as had happened with the victim’s body, and that it is likely the killer used a highly combustible fuel, such as aviation fuel.
Immediately after the discovery of the burned body on March 17, 2000, investigators, as well as reporters, put Okoshi under surveillance for two months until her arrest, during which time Tada and her husband tried to protect her from them.
“Minako was followed by more than 10 cars, from which reporters continuously took her picture in order to broadcast and print them after her arrest. Some media reported that Minako had looked sharply at the reporters, without (their) knowing she is very shortsighted,” Tada said. “Now I often doubt the news reports I read.”
Investigators argue that Okoshi abandoned the victim’s belongings while she was under 24-hour surveillance, which Masahiro, a member of the town assembly, calls absurd.
While it was the first experience for Okoshi’s supporters, including the Tadas, to visit a court, they continued attending her trial so they could compile newsletters to defend her and update a Web site they created following her arrest.
“I did not understand the legal terms at first, but I’ve gradually become accustomed to them,” Tada said. Her bookshelf is now brimming with legal books.
Hideko Ito, chief defense lawyer for Okoshi, said, “Mr. and Mrs. Tada have helped us a lot in establishing her innocence.”
Okoshi’s father, Keiji, 68, said, “I am really grateful to them.”
In their closing argument before the Sapporo District Court in mid-December, the defense lawyers attacked the prosecutors, saying their claims are far-fetched and utterly ridiculous.
They also argued that the victim was probably slain by two or more males, partly because the crime was carried out in a short time and also because the victim’s abdomen was particularly badly burned, suggesting an effort to conceal evidence of sexual abuse.
“The profiling may have been unnecessary, however, as we wanted to show that Ms. Okoshi is innocent, not (just) because prosecutors failed to submit sufficient evidence but because she is quite different from the criminal profile,” they said in their statement. “We also wanted to urge investigators to try again to find the real culprits.”
Okoshi told the court after the closing argument, “I did not kill her and did not burn her body.”
A verdict is scheduled to be handed down March 26, but the legal battle between Okoshi and the prosecutors will continue as the loser will definitely appeal to a higher court.
“We are ready to continue supporting her,” the Tadas said in a statement.
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