After the Supreme Court upheld Masumi Hayashi’s death sentence in April, the Wakayama Curry Murder Case became history. As far as the media is concerned, there is nothing left to talk about until her sentence is carried out, even though serious doubts remain about the prosecution’s evidence, which was all circumstantial, not to mention the judges’ willingness to pass sentence based on the idea that “no one else could have done it.” More significantly, the people of the Sonobe district of Wakayama, where four people died on July 25, 1998, after eating curry laced with arsenic at a community festival, seem to want to forget the tragedy. So why prolong the victims’ suffering?

This attitude became indefensible last week with the release from prison of 62-year-old Toshikazu Sugaya, who was convicted of the 1990 murder of a 4-year-old girl in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, and given a life sentence. His lawyers, who questioned the accuracy of the only evidence in the case, which was based on DNA tests that matched Sugaya to bodily fluids found on the dead girl’s clothing, submitted to the Tokyo High Court newer DNA tests results that showed there is no match. Their purpose was to have Sugaya’s case reopened, and prosecutors have since decided not to seek a guilty verdict, thus effectively declaring Sugaya innocent after 17 years behind bars.

It was only thanks to his lawyers’ relentlessness that Sugaya was able to gain his freedom, but the press had mostly ignored their efforts. Now, they’re all over it. TBS, for example, put together an excellent overview of the case for its weekend newsmagazine “Tokuho Tokushu Next” that explained the details with bracing clarity. It’s too bad they didn’t do it sooner.

The Ashikaga case had long been considered the “pioneer” in Japan for criminal investigations using “advanced scientific methods.” On the day Sugaya was taken into custody, the press made a huge fuss over the DNA testing that led to the arrest. One of Sugaya’s lawyers told TBS that there should have been doubts about the testing. “The media treated the science as if it were invincible, like Atom Boy,” he said sarcastically. “They just kept admiring the DNA judgment without reservations.” This judgment was made by a government body affiliated with the National Police Agency called Kakeiken (Kagaku Keisatsu Kenkyujo; the National Research Institute of Police Science) using a testing method known as MCT118, which locates genetic markers to determine matches.

Even at the time, the accuracy of this method was questionable. To paraphrase one technical expert interviewed by TBS, it’s like using meter-long units to measure lengths in centimeters. Even Kakeiken had published a paper before the Ashikaga trial ended saying the method needed improvement. But the body stood by its findings in the case, claiming that an accurate match could be found using “equivalency.” When Sugaya’s defense countered that “almost” isn’t good enough in a murder trial, the company defended itself by saying that it was the only method they had at the moment.

The judge bought the DNA evidence, but by the time the case reached the Supreme Court, a more accurate DNA test had been developed and Sugaya’s lawyers asked a doctor at the Japan Medical University to carry it out using Sugaya’s DNA. This doctor told TBS that at first he refused, saying, “Because this was a major criminal case that resulted in a life sentence, I assumed the prosecutors had been serious and accurate about the evidence.” He only gave in because the lawyers wouldn’t leave him alone.

The police were more difficult to persuade. They wouldn’t allow the lawyers to take Sugaya’s physical samples out of prison, so they had to do it surreptitiously, by having their client sneak out some strands of hair in a letter. When the doctor received the hair for testing, he recalls “I believed the results would be the same” as those reached by Kakeiken. But they weren’t. It was obvious to the doctor that there was no match between the DNA of the killer and the DNA of Sugaya.

That was 10 years ago. As Sugaya’s lawyer told TBS, if the trial had been reopened then, there’s a chance that the real killer could have been found, since the statute of limitations hadn’t run out yet. But it took them a decade of slogging through the legal system to finally get the new evidence accepted.

Sugaya was lucky he hadn’t been sentenced to death, otherwise he might not have survived to see his exoneration. The family of Michitoshi Kuma, who was executed last October for the 1992 murder of two elementary school girls in Iizuka, Fukuoka Prefecture, has demanded his case be reopened since he was also convicted with DNA evidence based on the MCT118 method. Kuma maintained his innocence until the end.

TBS discovered that there were actually two sets of DNA tests for the Iizuka case, one carried out by Kakeiken, the other by Teikyo University. Kakeiken’s test found a match between Kuma and the killer, but Teikyo’s did not. However, Teikyo’s results were not admitted as evidence. The expert told TBS that even with the greater accuracy of current methods, the use of DNA testing in criminal trials should determine a suspect’s innocence, not guilt, because the only thing you can say for sure about the results is that if they don’t match then you’re talking about two different people. “Even if the two types match,” he said. “You can’t say 100 percent that it is evidence of guilt.”

The implications of the TBS report are chilling, especially given the fact that Kuma was hanged less than three years after his last appeal was rejected. The current justice minister, Eisuke Mori, signed the execution order while Sugaya’s lawyers were in the process of asking the Tokyo High Court to invalidate the same kind of DNA evidence that convicted Kuma, whose lawyers now regret that they didn’t carry out retesting the way Sugaya’s lawyers did. In its report, TBS didn’t express a similar sense of remorse, but maybe it should have.

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