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The Tokyo High Court on Friday rejected a retrial plea lodged by a former professional boxer who has been on death row for 36 years over the 1966 murder of a family of four in Shizuoka Prefecture.

The decision was conveyed in the morning to the defense counsel of Iwao Hakamada, 68, who has been seeking a retrial for the past 23 years.

While Hakamada confessed to the crime during an initial police investigation, he later pleaded not guilty in court.

“New evidence presented by the defense lacks clarity and contains nothing new as required to open a retrial, and it cannot be said that it will generate reasonable doubt about the final judgment,” presiding Judge Fumio Yasuhiro said in rejecting Hakamada’s plea.

Hakamada’s defense team said it plans to appeal immediately to the Supreme Court.

Hakamada, a former professional featherweight boxer who once ranked sixth in Japan, was sentenced to death by the Shizuoka District Court in 1968 for stabbing to death Fujio Hashimoto, an executive at a miso manufacturer, his wife and two children in what was then Shimizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, on June 30, 1966. The family’s home was set on fire and about 200,000 yen was stolen.

Hakamada, then 30, had retired from boxing and was working at the company and lived in its factory, which was located next to the victim’s house. He was arrested in August that year for murder, robbery and arson.

Shizuoka police claimed Hakamada had confessed. In court, however, he said he had been forced to confess under duress, stating he had been beaten by interrogators into confessing.

The Shizuoka District Court determined in 1968 that he had committed the crime for money and sentenced him to death, although the court criticized the police investigation, including coercive questioning, and dismissed most of his confession documents.

Hakamada’s appeal against the death sentence was rejected by the Tokyo High Court in 1976 and by the Supreme Court in 1980.

Hakamada filed a request for a retrial in 1981 with the Shizuoka District Court. After the district court rejected this request in 1994, he appealed to the Tokyo High Court.

A retrial may be requested even after the ruling is finalized if clear and new evidence that casts reasonable doubt on the judgment of fact emerges.

Only four death row inmates have been granted retrials in Japan’s postwar history; no retrials have opened since the 1980s.

In all four cases, in which police extractions of confessions were called into question, the convicts were subsequently acquitted and freed.

Hakamada’s lawyers have argued that clothes and the murder weapon — a knife — presented during the trial were inconsistent with evidence found at the scene of the crime.

Hakamada’s lawyers also dismissed the credibility of a recorded confession made during an interrogation.

At the high court, they presented as evidence expert opinions to advance their argument that Hakamada could not have worn the garments he is alleged to have worn during the murders because they were too small to fit him.

The credibility of the garments as evidence has long been called into question because police said they found the bloodstained garments near the crime scene some 14 months after the killings.

However, Judge Yasuhiro of the high court cited the garments in question as one of the solid pieces of evidence linking Hakamada to the crime. The judge said there was no doubt that Hakamada had been wearing the garments at the time of the crime, dismissing doubts raised by the defense team over the circumstances in which they had been found.

“A comprehensive examination of new as well as previously submitted pieces of evidence does not alter the recognition of facts confirmed” in the earlier court decisions, the judge said.

Hakamada’s lawyers argued that the latest decision is illegal as it runs counter to retrial principles set by the Supreme Court in 1975.

“It is a serious human rights violation to isolate a person from society for 38 years based on a false accusation and to damage his or her mental state by imposing solitude and fear on them,” they said in a statement, adding that they would immediately appeal to the top court.

Hakamada’s 71-year-old sister, Hideko, who has devoted a large part of her life in recent decades to seeking a retrial for her brother, said the court’s decision was “nothing but regrettable.”

According to the sister, Hakamada became desperate after the Shizuoka court rejected his retrial plea in 1994, and has since refused to meet her at the prison and has not sent her a letter in recent years.

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