At first cleared, 40-year death-row inmate loses anew

Confession retracted but stands for killer, 86


The Nagoya High Court rejected a retrial appeal Friday of an 86-year-old man who has been on death row for four decades for the fatal poisoning of five women in 1961 in Nabari, Mie Prefecture, ruling his retracted confession made under initial grillings remains “basically trustworthy.”

Even though Masaru Okunishi was initially acquitted and the high court in 2005 opted to reopen the case, presiding Judge Yasuo Shimoyama said Friday, “It is unquestionable that only Okunishi could have mixed pesticide into the wine” that poisoned the victims.

Okunishi’s confession, made when he was under interrogation, “is basically trustworthy,” Shimoyama added.

The defense counsel will file a special interlocutory appeal with the Supreme Court.

The high-profile case involves the poisoning of 17 women on March 28, 1961, at a community meeting in Nabari. Five of the women, including Okunishi’s wife, died, and 12 fell sick.

Okunishi confessed to investigators that he had laced the wine with an agricultural chemical to resolve a love triangle involving himself, his wife and his girlfriend, but retracted his confession before being indicted.

Protesting his innocence, Okunishi was initially acquitted by the Tsu District Court in 1964 on grounds of insufficient evidence, but the Nagoya High Court overturned that ruling and sentenced him to hang in 1969. The Supreme Court finalized the verdict in 1972.

Okunishi subsequently filed seven petitions for a retrial, finally leading the high court to reopen the case in 2005. But another presiding judge at that court nullified the decision in response to an objection filed by prosecutors.

After the appeal by Okunishi’s counsel, the Supreme Court turned the case back to the high court in 2010, arguing it should examine the toxic substance used in the crime more scientifically.

In the latest deliberation, the defense submitted new evidence to the high court, claiming the type of pesticide used in the crime was different from the one Okunishi had confessed to using. It argued that a characteristic component of the substance was not detected in the wine.

Shimoyama rejected the argument, however, saying that the defense failed to prove the pesticide Okunishi had claimed to have used was different from the one actually used.

Okunishi told one of his lawyers at the Nagoya Detention House on Friday that he regretted the high court decision but said he is confident of winning at the final stage and called for continued support.

Osamu Watanabe, a law school professor at Konan University, said Friday the high court should have reopened the case as it has not been scientifically disproven that a different type of pesticide was mixed in the wine.

As long as there remains a possibility that Okunishi was the victim of a miscarriage of justice, the case should be reopened in line with the principle of innocent until proven guilty, he said.

But Takeshi Tsuchimoto, a former prosecutor at the Supreme Public Prosecutor’s Office and now a professor emeritus at Tsukuba University, called Friday’s decision is reasonable.

“The high court determined in a firm voice after examining all the evidence — old and new — that Okunishi is (definitely) the real culprit,” he said.