The Mito District Court’s Tsuchiura branch granted a retrial Wednesday for two parolees found guilty of robbery and murder, casting strong doubt on the evidence that led to their convictions.
Shoji Sakurai, 58, and Takao Sugiyama, 59, were sentenced to life in prison for robbing a 62-year-old carpenter and strangling him in Tone, Ibaraki Prefecture, in August 1967. The two, paroled in November 1996, have maintained their innocence, claiming they were forced to confess.
The district court acknowledged that “the only direct evidence linking (the two men) and the crime is their confessions.”
New evidence cast doubt on the reliability of those confessions and thus the foundation of their convictions, the court said, noting there were many points in their statements that strongly suggest they were coerced by investigators.
This is the year’s third ruling granting a retrial. Prosecutors have appealed one of them.
According to the court, one piece of newly submitted evidence shows it was highly likely the victim was strangled by some kind of fabric. The two men had said in their confessions that they used their hands to strangle the carpenter.
In October 1970, the court’s Tsuchiura branch sentenced both men to life, a ruling finalized when the Supreme Court rejected their appeal in July 1978. The pair first sought a retrial in 1983. The district court rejected the bid in 1987 and the Supreme Court did likewise in 1992. This was their second try.
At a news conference after the ruling, lawyers for the men expressed satisfaction, saying the court acknowledged the contradictions between the confessions and the physical evidence, including the lack of their fingerprints at the crime scene, and that none of the eight strands of hair found matched those of Sakurai or Sugiyama.
The lawyers also pointed out that prosecutors disclosed for the first time evidence that cast doubt on two men’s confessions and witness testimony.
“I hope prosecutors will not forget that their job is to seek the truth,” said Hiroo Yamamoto, one of the lawyers.
In a written statement, Sugiyama said he was deeply moved by the decision: “For the first time in 38 years, I have faith in the courts.”
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