National / Social Issues | FOCUS

Death of condemned inmate who died while claiming innocence raises questions over retrial system

Kyodo

Sunday’s death of a death row inmate who had petitioned for decades for a retrial over his conviction in a 1961 murder case underscored the need to revamp the country’s retrial system, according to lawyer Yuichi Kaido.

“The case had a chance of a retrial in 2005, but it was thrown into confusion because prosecutors filed an objection,” said Kaido, who heads a nonprofit organization for prisoner rights.

Kaido was referring to the Nagoya High Court’s order for a retrial for Masaru Okunishi in 2005 after he had submitted new evidence, which was later retracted by a separate department of the high court following the filing of an objection by prosecutors.

“There is a problem with the system in that prosecutors are allowed to file complaints. Retrials should be part of a system that saves victims who have been wrongfully convicted,” Kaido said. “It is extremely disappointing that the repeated retrial petitions were not accepted.”

The high-profile case involved the poisoning of 17 people in March 1961 at a community meeting in Nabari, Mie Prefecture. Five women, including Okunishi’s wife, died and 12 others fell sick after drinking wine tainted with poison.

Okunishi initially told investigators he put pesticide into the wine to “end a love triangle” with his wife and another woman but retracted his confession before he was indicted. The Tsu District Court acquitted him in 1964 for lack of evidence, but the Nagoya High Court sentenced him in 1969 to hang. The ruling was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1972.

Okunishi repeatedly petitioned for a retrial in the succeeding years, claiming his confession had been fabricated.

During the retrial process, the court failed to order prosecutors to disclose what Okunishi’s legal team claimed was key evidence — a photo of the crime scene taken immediately after the murders.

The court’s decision prompted many critics to doubt its judgment amid an increasing number of cases in recent years in which fresh disclosure of evidence by prosecutors led to acquittals of those who appear to have been falsely convicted.

Okunishi’s chief attorney, Izumi Suzuki, who confirmed the death Sunday of his client at a hospital in Hachioji, Tokyo, expressed disappointment with the legal system.

“During the course of the trial, the court ruled twice he was not guilty,” Suzuki said, referring to the 1964 acquittal and the 2005 decision by the Nagoya High Court ordering a retrial.

“His life had been toyed with by the judicial system,” Suzuki added. “I’m sure he’s gone to heaven, but I’ll continue to fight to prove his innocence.”

Later on Monday, Okunishi’s younger sister, Miyoko Oka, expressed her intention to continue trying to have her brother exonerated and declared innocent.

The current retrial petition, the ninth, is likely to be canceled with Okunishi’s death, but Oka is expected to file a new one.

Shozo Ino, 76, an avid supporter of Okunishi, also said the fight will go on.

“I’ll do everything I can to fulfill Mr. Okunishi’s wish,” Ino said. “I want the nation to learn what really happened in 1961 and hope the truth will endure the verification of the history.”

Okunishi was born and grew up in the district of Kazuo, a remote mountain community in Nabari where the incident occurred.

After graduating from a local public high school in 1940, he started working at one of Japan’s major railway companies, Kintetsu Corp. He met his future wife, Chieko, who worked for the same company, at Nabari Station on the Kintetsu Osaka Line. They got married despite opposition from some family members. They had a son and a daughter.

After Okunishi’s arrest, his family’s reputation was irreversibly damaged and his son, who was then attending a junior high school in Nabari, was taunted as being a child of a murderer and forced to leave the village.

“(My) children have been forced to live apart and the only thing I can do to (give them their lives back) is to keep seeking my exoneration,” reads a line in a letter Okunishi sent to one of his supporters.

Every time police took Okunishi to the village as part of the investigation, he would say he often heard his children’s voices, tearfully crying out “dad.”

When he learned about his son’s death in 2010, his grief was overwhelming.

In 2012, he developed pneumonia and was taken to a medical prison in Hachioji. He fell into critical condition a year later but recovered and remained bedridden on a respirator.

Okunishi was once a solidly built man, standing nearly 180 cm tall at the time of his arrest. But as his health deteriorated, he lost weight, which at some point dropped to just 45 kg.