Lifer freed by a single smuggled hair strand


In the end, Toshikazu Sugaya may owe his freedom to a single strand of hair. As he languished in prison on a life sentence for a murder he did not commit, his lawyer told him there was only one way out: disprove the false DNA evidence that had put him inside.

Sugaya, 62, spent more than 17 years behind bars for the killing of 4-year-old Mami Matsuda before being released a month ago. The girl’s body was found dumped on a riverbank in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, in 1990. Police matched Sugaya’s DNA from sperm retrieved from her discarded underwear.

Detectives had followed him for a year in search of evidence to support their belief that he was the murderer, said his lawyer, Hiroshi Sato. Police interest in Sugaya began after they discovered in preliminary checks that he shared the same blood type as the killer. They found an extremely shy man who they believed fit the profile of someone who would commit such an awful crime.

Middle-aged and single after a marriage that had failed because of his inability to perform sexually, he was an avid consumer of porn and kept a blowup doll at home. His job driving a kindergarten bus put him in proximity with potential victims. All that was missing was evidence.

In June 1991, the police rifled through Sugaya’s garbage and found what they were looking for — a discarded tissue loaded with his masturbatory sperm. Despite being obtained without a warrant, Sato said, they sent it to the National Research Institute for Police Science, which was pioneering the new but largely untested world of DNA forensics in Japan. The institute declared a match.

Once in custody, the police did a blood test on their man to get the legal evidence they needed.

Sugaya’s account of his subsequent interrogation is a familiar tale of coercion and violence. From the minute they arrived at his door on a wintry morning in December 1991, the police appeared convinced of his guilt, he recalled.

“They barged in and told me to sit down. Then they kept saying, ‘You killed that kid, didn’t you.’ I said ‘no, no’ but they didn’t believe me.”

Sugaya said detectives waved a photo of the dead girl and demanded he apologize to her. When he prayed for her soul, clasping his hands in front of him, they misinterpreted it as a sign of guilt. At the station, officers pulled his hair, kicked him and shouted in his face. After a 13-hour interrogation in which he was denied food, water or a lawyer, he confessed to the crime and burst into tears.

“I’m a very timid person,” he said. “I was just so scared.”

Sugaya subsequently retracted his confession, but he had little chance of proving his innocence in courts that overwhelmingly tilt toward prosecutors. Even his lawyer at the time believed he was guilty and abandoned him, Sato said, adding, “I find it amazing that a defense lawyer could do that.”

Sugaya was sentenced to life in July 1993 and began to come to terms with his ordeal.

In prison, he was intimidated and beaten by a fellow inmate angered by his protestations of innocence. It wasn’t until the offer of help from Sato, a DNA expert who agreed to work pro bono, that a light appeared at the end of the tunnel.

The lawyer’s plan was straightforward: “I told him to secretly put a hair into an envelope and we would do another DNA test,” he recalled.

So it came to be that Sugaya’s life hinged precariously on two furtively — if not illegally — obtained pieces of evidence: the discarded tissue that convinced the police of his guilt, and the fresh DNA sample, which eventually showed, after tests at Nihon University, that he was innocent.

In October 1997, Sato submitted the new evidence to the Supreme Court, requesting a retrial. The request was denied in 2000.

In February 2008, another petition at the original Utsunomiya District Court that convicted Sugaya was rejected. Then, unexpectedly last December the Tokyo High Court ordered a fresh DNA test. Neither Sato nor Sugaya know why, but they suspect public pressure played a part.

Two years ago, broadcaster NTV began a rare media investigation into the case, citing its similarities with four other unsolved child murders in Tochigi and nearby Gunma Prefecture.

Freed and awaiting the retrial that will officially declare him innocent, Sugaya has already paid his respects at the site where Mami Matsuda was found. The police must now begin looking for a serial killer, who may also have murdered 5-year-old Maya Fukushima in 1979. Her body was dumped 200 meters farther downstream on the banks of the Watarase River.

The statute of limitations for murder was 15 years at the time of both the Matsuda and Fukushima slayings, and has since expired for those killings, a fact that infuriates Sugaya: “There should be no statute of limitations on cases like this. It’s totally unacceptable.”

The statute for murder was extended to 25 years in 2004 but only covers slayings committed after the law was revised.

Sugaya’s release has sent shock waves through the justice system and triggered a string of rare apologies, among them from the current head of the Tochigi Prefectural Police, Shoichiro Ishikawa. Sugaya, though bitter, has accepted them all but waits for the one that counts: the original police team that forced his confession.

“Anybody can make a mistake, but we should own up when we do,” he said. “I want them to face me like men and say (they’re) sorry.”

TV reporters recently door-stopped the now retired cops, who could be heard snarling at them through mail slots. The Tochigi police have already hinted, Sato said, at an apology — away from the prying eyes of the media.

Elsewhere, however, there are worrying signs of business as usual. High Court Judge Hiroshi Yamura, freeing Sugaya, rejected demands by the defense to summon the police and scientists from the original trial. Sometime this year, there will be an embarrassing and highly public official admission of systemic failure, but no investigation into why it occurred — a whitewash, Sato believes.

Still, he thinks the case is enormously significant, comparing its impact to the overturned convictions of the alleged IRA bombers Guildford Four and Birmingham Six, which triggered the start of a major overhaul of British police methods. The aftershocks may bring changes long demanded by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations — curbs on the much criticized system of long pretrial detentions (“daiyo kangoku”) and institutionalization of the videotaping of police confessions. “I think a change of government this year might be a deciding factor,” Sato said.

TV’s role in the case will also have been noted by the rest of the media, Sato said, in a country where they have often slavishly reported police accounts of major crimes, and rarely dug behind them. “Journalists are also reflecting on their mistakes,” he added.

Sugaya can expect compensation of about ¥12,500 for every day he spent in prison — about ¥70 million. But even with that money, restarting life will be tough. His parents are long dead and his siblings have severed ties in a bid to put the scandal behind them. He intends to get his driver’s license back and drive again.

Since being freed, Sugaya has struggled with the simple details of modern life. Washrooms, particularly hand-driers and high-tech toilets, flummox him. Dodging people on the street after so many years walking in single file is an ordeal. “There are many more buildings in Tokyo than when I went inside. It all feels so strange to me.”

Aya Hamashima helped on this article