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A man sentenced to life for the 1990 murder of a 4-year-old girl was freed Thursday from Chiba Prison after 17 years behind bars as prosecutors opted not to challenge a recent DNA test that did not link him with the victim.

“I’ll never forgive the real culprit, even if the statute of limitations expires,” Toshikazu Sugaya, 62, told reporters in Chiba after his release. “From now on, I will work to support people who have also been (wrongfully) convicted.”

Sugaya also suggested that he wants to join efforts to call for the abolishment of the statute of limitations for serious crimes, including murder.

He appeared calm before the media but raised his voice as he spoke about his time in prison while the real culprit remained at large.

Following the rare move by the Tokyo High Public Prosecutor’s Office, a retrial for Sugaya is expected to begin and is highly expected to overturn his conviction, legal experts said.

Sugaya has sought a retrial ever since being convicted of kidnapping Mami Matsuda from a pachinko parlor in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, and murdering her in May 1990.

A DNA test early on became the first to help lead to a conviction in Japan. The defense team, however, filed for a retrial with the district court in December 2002 with new evidence regarding DNA test analysis.

Sugaya’s release follows a request by his counsel last month that prosecutors free him immediately. The team cited the results of a fresh DNA test conducted by the Tokyo High Court that showed a sample taken from him did not match dried body fluid found on the victim’s clothing. The results contradicted those of the earlier DNA test.

Referring to the latest DNA analysis, the prosecutors said in a written opinion given to the high court: “There is a high possibility that it will be qualified to become clear evidence that will lead to an acquittal.”

An analyst from the prosecution side said procedures used during the investigation in the case were still in the early stages of development and there was no established, scientific method for DNA analysis at the time that could endure as evidence in investigations and in trials.

The accuracy of DNA testing has greatly improved since its first use in criminal investigations in Japan in 1989, according to experts.

“We have decided to cease the execution of the (life) sentence today,” said Keiichi Watanabe, deputy chief of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutor’s Office. Watanabe, however, repeatedly stressed that the prosecutors worked on the case “sincerely and fairly.”

Under the Code of Criminal Procedure, prosecutors can free an inmate who has appealed for a retrial. But it is rare for an inmate to be released before a retrial starts.

The Tokyo High Court told both prosecutors and Sugaya’s defense team May 8 that recently conducted DNA tests found a sample from Sugaya to be different from the one used as evidence that helped lead to his conviction.

The high court also instructed both the prosecution and defense to submit written opinions on the results of the new tests to the court by June 12. Sugaya initially confessed to killing the girl but later withdrew the confession.

“I am innocent, and I’m grateful that the testing was done again,” Sugaya was quoted as telling his lawyer when the DNA test was conducted. “I am really touched. I want to get out of this prison and pay a visit to my parent’s grave.”

Following the prosecutors’ decision, Sugaya’s lawyers and supporters expressed a mixture of relief and anger at the initial police investigation.

Manabu Sasamori, a lawyer in Sugaya’s defense team, slammed the prosecutors, saying: “It is only natural that he be released. Actually, this step came too late.”

The prosecutors will probably admit they forced a confession out of Sugaya once his retrial begins, Sasamori added.

Meanwhile, Itoko Nishimaki, 59, who has campaigned for the release of Sugaya for more than 15 years, said, “All we can say is we are relieved.”

Nishimaki, however, said his release has opened another chapter in his legal battle, adding that she and fellow supporters will fully consult Sugaya’s legal team over their next move.

According to Nishimaki, Sugaya regained his peace of mind when he met with his supporters in Chiba Prison on Wednesday and learned he would be freed soon.

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