When asked by the media for comments ahead of controversial court rulings, Tokyo-based lawyer Kenzo Akiyama usually prepares two statements — one for when the defendants lose and another for when they win.
Yet Akiyama limited himself to a not-guilty draft when asked about one particular murder case in Hokkaido.
To his amazement, however, the Sapporo District Court sentenced 33-year-old Minako Okoshi to 16 years in prison last March for strangling a woman and burning her body in Hokkaido in 2000. Okoshi was allegedly motivated by jealousy, with the victim having tried to come between her and her boyfriend.
“I was really shocked by the decision, as I did not expect that she would be found guilty after reading the closing arguments from the prosecutors and her lawyers,” said Akiyama, a 63-year-old former judge who spent almost 25 years on the bench.
“The judges would not have been able to find her guilty had they faithfully followed the principles for criminal justice cases — benefit of the doubt and proof of guilt beyond reasonable doubt.”
Akiyama joined Okoshi’s defense team after she filed an appeal. The appeal trial starts before the Sapporo High Court on March 22.
The district court stated that Okoshi had strangled her 24-year-old colleague in her car on March 16, 2000, doused the body with 10 liters of kerosene and burned it on a street in the city of Eniwa.
Akiyama questioned the validity of the ruling, citing the fact that there was no evidence — such as the victim’s hair, bodily fluids or fingerprints — in Okoshi’s car that could tie her to the murder.
He also stated that investigators were unable to provide evidence that Okoshi was at the site where the body was found, such as shoe prints or tread marks from her car.
“When judges make a ruling based on circumstantial evidence in cases where there are no witnesses, they need to have clear evidence, such as fingerprints, shoe prints and bloodstains,” he said. “But in Ms. Okoshi’s case, there was no such evidence to identify her as the murderer.”
He added that 10 liters of kerosene is not enough to carbonize a corpse, and noted that while Okoshi, who is 14 cm shorter than the victim and whose grip strength is weaker than an ordinary person’s due to a growth deficiency, could not have strangled the victim without injuring herself.
“They must have fought, and the struggle would have left marks (on Okoshi). But they could not be found,” he added.
Despite these arguments, the district court concluded it was “possible” the defendant committed the crime.
The defense team will raise these questions during the appeals trial by submitting experts’ written opinions.
Akiyama, who became a lawyer in 1991, has worked for other defendants whose convictions have been questioned, including Iwao Hakamada, a former professional boxer who is on death row for murdering four members of a family in Shizuoka in 1966.
He also defends those who claim to have been falsely accused of groping women on trains. “Most of them are indicted based only on the women’s statements,” he said. “Neither prosecutors nor judges pay attention to the defendants’ pleas of innocence, even when there is no circumstantial evidence.”
As a former judge, he said he himself may have handed down unfair rulings, which is why he is willing to work for these defendants.
“In a traffic accident case, I once found a driver guilty despite his claim that the light had been green, as I believed it had been red,” Akiyama said. “Although he did not appeal the ruling, he may still blame me for the decision.”
In analyzing cases in which defendants were charged with crimes they did not commit, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations pointed out that the judges’ implicit faith in prosecutors’ arguments and their misjudgments over defendants’ voluntary confessions are behind the mistakes.
Given that the conviction rate in Japan stands at more than 99 percent, “judges seem to be in the habit of handing down guilty verdicts, while media reports after suspects’ arrests, which give the impression that they are the true perpetrators before trials start, pressure judges to find them guilty,” Akiyama maintained.
In a bid to prevent the innocent from being falsely accused, the bar federation has proposed that investigators videotape interrogations.
Okoshi, who has been detained in Sapporo since her arrest in May 2000, is now corresponding with people who have experience in being falsely accused, according to supporter Masahiro Tada.
Akiyama said, “We need to invalidate the district court ruling in the name of justice. I hope we will be able to free Ms. Okoshi from the detention house as swiftly as possible.”