Although Takao Sugiyama and Shoji Sakurai were involved in minor thefts and fights more than 40 years ago, they paid a much higher price than expected — 29 years in prison for a 1967 robbery-murder in a small town in Ibaraki Prefecture they claim they had nothing to do with.
Since being released on parole in November 1996 the two, both 64, actively campaigned for a not-guilty verdict in a retrial, arguing their one-time confessions were coerced by investigators.
Boosted by a series of recent acquittals in high-profile cases, including one in which a man who had served 17 years of a life sentence was cleared in March 2010 for the 1990 murder of a girl known — a case known as the “Ashikaga Incident” — the pair are now much in demand to speak at gatherings and symposiums nationwide seeking judicial reform.
Sugiyama and Sakurai were given life sentences for murdering a 62-year-old carpenter and stealing cash in August 1967 in a case known as the “Fukawa Incident” in reference to the name of the area where the crime was committed, although there was no direct evidence, including fingerprints.
Last July, a retrial finally began after the Supreme Court endorsed lower court decisions in December 2009 to hear the case again on the grounds of doubts about the men’s confessions. The Mito District Court’s Tsuchiura branch is expected to exonerate them, rejecting the prosecutors’ case against them.
The scheduled ruling Wednesday was postponed, apparently due to Friday’s earthquake/tsunami disaster. The new date has not been decided yet, according to judicial sources.
The expected acquittal will deal an additional blow to prosecutors, who were hit hard by an evidence-tampering scandal last year in a postal discount system abuse case.
It is also expected to further accelerate ongoing debate over the audiovisual recording of interrogations, which advocates say should be introduced to cover the entire process as a way to prevent wrongful charges.
“We were initially arrested for unrelated charges before being put under interrogation over the Fukawa case,” Sugiyama told around 100 lawyers and lawmakers at a recent rally.
“In a bid to obtain our confessions, investigators told each of us separately that the (other) had already confessed to the murder and that we would be hanged if we continued denying the allegations,” he said. “They also instructed me about how to respond to their questions in advance, and recorded my responses in order to submit a tape of them to the court.”
In the wake of the recent not-guilty rulings and evidence-tampering by an Osaka prosecutor, there have been efforts in legal as well as political circles to ensure fair investigations.
The Supreme Public Prosecutor’s Office plans to introduce audiovisual recordings of interrogations by special investigative squads in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya on a trial basis on starting Friday.
But as it is up to prosecutors what to record through audio or videotaping, the policy has been attacked as insufficient by those who seek complete transparency.
“As seen in the Fukawa Incident, judges may think a defendant confessed voluntarily if prosecutors only record the interrogation process where the defendant talked . . . smoothly,” said Goro Shibata, head of a group of defense lawyers for Sugiyama and Sakurai.
As serious crimes such as murder are now examined under the lay judge trial system, “it is necessary to record the entire interrogation process so even citizen judges can make an adequate judgmental decision,” said Shibata, who has been involved in the Fukawa trial for more than 40 years.
Kenji Utsunomiya, president of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, joined the criticism, saying in his statement that partial recordings will not show whether statements by suspects were made arbitrarily or if they are credible.
“It will not contribute to terminating wrongful charges if prosecutors try to secure the admissibility of evidence over depositions compiled in a closed room by selectively recording parts of the interrogation process,” he said.
Having seen the string of wrongful accusations, Sakurai said at a recent public meeting in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, “I believe we are not the only victims of wrongful charges.
“Even if we are acquitted in the retrial, I will continue drawing attention to the existence of unjust accusations and unreasonable investigations while working in support of victims like us,” he added.
In an effort to prevent wrongful accusations, a group of around 120 lawmakers from the ruling Democratic Party of Japan is now working to compile a bill to introduce a full audiovisual recordings first in interrogations of prosecutor-initiated investigations, according to Megumu Tsuji, a member of the group.
“We will eventually expand the full recording system to other criminal cases, including ones that are heard in lay judge trials,” said Tsuji, who is also a lawyer. “But investigative authorities have shown reluctance to accepting the idea, saying it will become difficult to seek the truth.”
The Fukawa Incident has prompted freelance film director Yoko Ide to produce a documentary movie about it.
On the days of their release, Ide started recording the daily lives of Sugiyama and Sakurai using a compact camera and her 14-year effort resulted in the film “Shoji and Takao,” which will be shown to the public starting later this month in Tokyo, Yokohama and Nagoya, after a judgment is delivered in their retrial.
“I myself didn’t pay attention previously to the issue of wrongful accusation, but shooting the film has made me aware that wrongful charges happen in the society where we currently live,” she said.
The documentary shows, sometimes with touches of humor, how the two have struggled to lead their lives following their release as they tried to find jobs and begin families as well as seek justice.
It also captures the defense lawyers’ efforts to find new evidence to reopen the case.
“We replicated the moves of the suspects to examine if they could have committed the crime without leaving their fingerprints, while checking whether an eyewitness could have identified them, as determined in the initial ruling, under nighttime illumination,” Shibata, the chief lawyer, said.
“Judges are supposed to keep a neutral stance between prosecutors and defense counsel, but they don’t doubt prosecutors’ arguments,” he said. “Thus we had to convince them not by theories but by tangible evidence to reopen the case.”
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