National / Crime & Legal

Freed death row prisoner brings new life to group fighting capital punishment

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo

A former death row inmate cleared of murder is giving new life to a fund that tries to help those facing execution secure a retrial.

Masao Akahori, 85, spent more than 30 years on death row for the murder of a 6-year-old girl in Shimada, Shizuoka Prefecture. He was acquitted in 1989 and is now an ardent campaigner against capital punishment.

“I was able to avoid being hanged for a crime I didn’t commit, but the important thing is to end the death penalty,” Akahori said in a video message at a recent meeting in Tokyo of campaigners against capital punishment.

Akahori is donating a significant amount of money to a private fund that helps people on death row get legal assistance, the fund’s organizers said.

Created in 2005 with a ¥10 million bequest by anti-death penalty campaigner Sachiko Daidoji, the Daidoji Fund covers some of the fees that death row inmates incur as they seek a retrial.

It also operates a program encouraging people on death row to write and draw, awarding them prizes. The fund recently held a public exhibition in Tokyo to show that even convicted murderers have a human soul.

The fund was supposed to have been wound up this year, but Akahori’s gesture will enable it to continue for another five years, said Masakuni Ota, a senior board member. The size of Akahori’s contribution has not been disclosed.

One change will be the fund’s name, becoming the Daidoji-Akahori Fund for Abolition of the Death Penalty.

Over the nine years of its existence, the fund has received around 360 paintings from death row prisoners in Japanese jails, along with some of their writings. Most of the images were put on display in a Tokyo gallery for 10 days in September.

Around 4,000 visitors saw the exhibition, many of whom wrote down their impressions afterward for the organizers.

“I cried. I wondered how those who could create these beautiful and heartfelt pictures could commit such crimes,” one said.

Another wrote that perhaps the pictures conveyed the prisoners’ hopes “to return to the past, before they committed their crimes, and to express their feelings — if only a little — in restricted circumstances.”

Not all were sympathetic. One visitor wrote it was “unfair” that death row convicts were free to create artwork given that their murder victims could never come back and that the victims’ families would continue to grieve.

But at least one visitor reported a change of mind: “I was pro-capital punishment, but I have come to realize that human beings are attractive. It’s shocking, but I now believe we had better not keep the death penalty.”

Ota said the exhibition achieved an important form of outreach.

“Although the visitors and the death row inmates cannot directly meet with each other, these notes suggest the start of a mutual exchange through the pictures,” he said. The messages will be sent to the prisoners, he added.

The fund’s organizers are delighted that Akahori’s donation will enable them to continue their work.

“Prisoners on death row have come to depend on our activities, and therefore we cannot stop,” Ota said.

“We will also continue working to end capital punishment,” he added, saying what the group wants above all else is immediate abolition.

The so-called Shimada Case, in which Akahori was wrongfully convicted, was one of four retrials in the 1980s that acquitted people on death row.

The cases highlighted defects in Japan’s criminal investigation system, including an over-dependence on confessions. The revelation that so many individuals would have been executed for crimes they did not commit stirred expectations that the death penalty might be abolished.

But decades later, Japan retains the penalty and was one of only 22 countries to execute prisoners in 2013. Amnesty International says 140 countries, or 70 percent of the world’s total, have no death penalty, ending it either by law or in practice.

While a government survey shows more than 80 percent of Japanese people support capital punishment, the U.N. Human Rights Committee has urged the nation to “give due consideration to the abolition of the death penalty.”

Another death row inmate was released this year after DNA evidence caused a court to order the reopening of a case from 1966 in which four relatives were murdered. The freed man, Iwao Hakamada, is now awaiting a retrial before he can be formally exonerated.