The Tokyo High Court on Wednesday exonerated Govinda Prasad Mainali, 46, of the 1997 robbery-murder of a 39-year-old Tokyo woman for which he had served 15 years of a life sentence before being freed and deported home to Nepal in June.

Mainali’s acquittal was immediately finalized as prosecutors, who had sat on evidence from the start that indicated another man had committed the slaying, renounced their right to make a final appeal.

“Today’s decision should have been handed down on Dec. 22, 2000, in the same courtroom. But it took 15 years and five months to confirm Mr. Mainali’s innocence as well as the accuracy of the district court ruling. It has taken too long,” Mainali’s defense team said after the high court ruling.

Presiding Judge Shoji Ogawa ruled that the new evidence, including DNA samples, strongly indicated that another man, identified only as “No. 376,” had sex with the victim — a Tokyo Electric Power Co. employee who had engaged in prostitution on the side — and had beat and strangled her.

The court thus felt there was reasonable doubt about Mainali’s guilt, using the April 2000 reasoning used by the Tokyo District Court to initially acquit the defendant, Ogawa said.

Mainali, who spent 15 years in prison, was deported to Nepal in June after the high court agreed to hold the retrial, which was held last month in his absence.

“Sometimes I feel that if new evidence had not been entered, maybe there was no retrial, and I could still have been in prison,” Mainali said in a statement. “Please investigate and think why I had to suffer like this. . . . I hope I will be the last man to be convicted because evidence was hidden.”

Mainali’s counsel said the prosecution’s wrongful appeal and the December 2000 high court ruling that reversed the acquittal were the two major problems that contributed to his long court battle.

Toshikuni Murai, an Osaka Gakuin University Law School professor and an expert on criminal law, agreed, saying the government should work toward prohibiting prosecutors’ right to appeal lower court rulings.

“The district court had clearly pointed out the doubts it held toward the evidence presented by the prosecution,” he said. “This case should have been finalized at that point.”

The high court at the time also presented a problem since it accepted prosecutors’ arguments even without any new evidence, Murai added. “But if the prosecutor’s appeal was not made in the first place, the reversal would not have occurred,” he said.

Murai stressed that investigative authorities, prosecutors and the courts must carefully examine why this wrongful conviction occurred.

“There has not been enough investigation and reflection done against wrongful convictions,” Murai said.

“Prosecutors must work much harder to avoid the same mistakes,” he said. “I can’t understand why as legal professionals they can hide evidence that would benefit the defendant.”

In a statement after the ruling, Takayuki Aonuma, deputy head of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutor’s Office, said, “We would like to again offer our apologies to Mr. Mainali.” The office also released a similar statement after the one-day Oct. 29 retrial.

At the retrial, prosecutors had sought an acquittal for Mainali, claiming “new evidence” — including DNA samples of tissue found under the victim’s fingernails, hair strands left on and near the victim and semen found in and on the her — matched that of another man.

Prosecutors argued that evidentiary circumstances have changed since Mainali was originally accused of the murder.

Mainali now has the right to receive compensation from the state for the time he was arrested in May 1997 until he was released from prison last June 7. Based on the law, he could receive up to around ¥70 million.

Mainali was acquitted by the Tokyo District Court in April 2000 as circumstantial evidence showed there was reasonable doubt that he murdered the victim. However, when prosecutors appealed, the Tokyo High Court reversed the district court ruling and sentenced Mainali to life — using the same evidence. The Supreme Court finalized the decision in October 2003.

It is the nation’s eighth case since World War II in which a person wrongfully convicted and sentenced to either life or the gallows has been acquitted in a retrial.

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