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The man convicted of one of Japan’s most shocking postwar crimes is insisting on his innocence from “beyond the grave.”

On tapes recorded secretly in prison, Sadamichi Hirasawa declared he did not kill 12 people by conning them into drinking poison in a Tokyo bank in 1948.

Hirasawa died of natural causes in a prison hospital in May 1987 at age 95 after living in the shadow of the gallows for nearly 40 years.

The tapes were recently revealed by Hirasawa’s adopted son, Takehiko, 44.

On them, Hirasawa said, “I will continue standing firm in defense of my innocence” regarding the case known as the Teigin (Imperial Bank) Incident

Few cases have drawn as much attention in the annals of Japanese crime.

It started Jan. 26, 1948, when a man claiming to be a public health official walked into a branch of Teikoku Ginko (Imperial Bank) in Tokyo’s Shiinamachi district and told 16 clerks and customers dysentery had broken out in the neighborhood.

He told them to drink a liquid he claimed was a remedy.

The liquid was actually poison.

Twelve of the 16 people died, and the murderer escaped from the bank with cash and checks.

Seven months later, Hirasawa, then a famous painter, was arrested as a suspect. A health ministry official whose business card was presented by the perpetrator of a similar poisoning attempt told police Hirasawa was among those to whom he had given his card.

He was tried, found guilty and sentenced to death. The Supreme Court upheld the sentence in 1955, mainly on the basis of a written confession Hirasawa later retracted. He continued to maintain his innocence.

Takehiko made the tapes with a small recorder sneaked into a meeting room at Sendai Prison in Miyagi Prefecture in 1977 and 1980. Most prisons forbid making recordings or taking photographs in their meeting rooms, though there are no legal restrictions against it.

Takehiko, who filed the 19th appeal in the case with the Tokyo High Court for a retrial in May 1989, said, “My father’s recorded voice shows his strong obsession with demonstrating his innocence.”

On the 1977 tape, Hirasawa bragged about his health, saying “Just try and do something to me!”

The then 85-year-old death-row inmate said he rubbed lemon juice, which he used for tempera paintings in his cell, into his hair to make it look black and that he listened to sumo on the radio.

Three years later, when his request for amnesty was rejected, he told Takehiko and his supporter that he had a solid alibi, referring to his claim that he was at his Tokyo home with his family at the time of the slayings.

“If they think they can hang me, they should go ahead and try,” he said.

“My father’s supporter and I intended to console him, as the amnesty request was refused, but he was in high spirits and cheered us up,” Takehiko said.

Takehiko revealed another tape from 1963, when regulations on recording in prisons were more lenient, recorded by his real father, Tetsuro Morikawa, a well-known writer and prominent supporter of Hirasawa.

Morikawa died in December 1982. Takehiko was adopted into the Hirasawa family at age 22 to support a retrial appeal and fulfill a wish in his father’s will that he prove Hirasawa’s innocence.

On the 1963 tape, Hirasawa said, “Anybody can be executed if he or she is condemned based on falsified investigative reports.

“I am trying to get rid of misfortune imposed on all people in Japan, and I’m not afraid of dying,” he said.

Prior to the 55th anniversary of Hirasawa’s arrest, Takehiko said, “I expect the tapes to contribute to showing that my father was the victim of a mistrial.”

In a bid to have the case reopened, a group of lawyers led by Kiyoshi Yasumochi and Hirasawa’s supporters continue to hold monthly meetings to search for new proof of his innocence.

The main piece of evidence in the 19th appeal is a memorandum by a deceased investigator that indicates investigators at the time believed someone from a secret unit within the old Imperial Japanese Army must have been involved in the Teigin Incident.

The investigators believed the rare poison used in the murder could only have been obtained by certain people, such as those working for the notorious Unit 731, a secret organization within the army believed to have conducted experiments on human victims during the war in an effort to produce chemical arms and other weapons of mass destruction.

The supporters claim the poison was not potassium cyanide as the courts ruled, because the poisoning symptoms weren’t immediate.

But the investigators suddenly switched their attention to Hirasawa, leading defense lawyers to suspect that pressure from government authorities, who wanted to keep the unit’s wartime activities secret, was exerted on the investigative team.