OSAKA - A man and woman serving life in prison for starting a fire that killed the woman’s 11-year-old daughter were freed Monday when the Osaka High Court ordered their release following a decision to reopen the arson-murder case.
At around 2 p.m., Keiko Aoki, 51, walked out of a prison in Wakayama Prefecture while Tatsuhiro Boku, 49, was released from a prison in Oita Prefecture.
They had been behind bars for two decades. Prosecutors had sought to prevent their release.
“I was finally able to return to a world we take for granted,” Aoki told supporters immediately after her release. “I can hear my daughter saying somewhere in this blue sky, ‘Mom, I’m so happy for you.’ “
Speaking in front of Oita Prison, Boku was ebullient.
“Being out here for the first time in 20 years, I feel as if I am standing on foreign land,” he said. “It’s like a dream and the scenery before me looks brilliant.”
Last Friday, the Osaka High Court endorsed a March 2012 lower court decision to grant a retrial to Aoki, the mother of the 11-year-old victim, and Boku, her de facto husband. Both were serving life terms after being found guilty of setting their house on fire in a bid to kill the girl and collect on the life insurance.
They pleaded not guilty during their initial trial, even though at one point during questioning by police and prosecutors they had admitted to the allegations.
In Friday’s decision, Judge Masaaki Yoneyama said there is a high possibility that the two are not guilty and that it would be “unjust to further detain them 20 years after their arrest.”
The couple were arrested in September 1995 on murder charges, and their conviction was finalized by the Supreme Court in late 2006.
The Osaka District Court decided in 2012 to reopen the case after the two requested a retrial in 2009.
Upholding the lower court decision, the Osaka High Court concluded Friday that the fire could have been accidental and that Boku’s arson confession had lost credibility.
The pair’s lawyers conducted an experiment to simulate the fire and claimed it was accidentally caused by a bathtub water heater and gasoline leaking from a car in their garage.
After lodging an objection to the district court decision on the retrial, prosecutors conducted their own experiment but failed to reverse the defense claim.
Experts say the ruling follows a trend where courts focus more on evidence with a scientific basis than on suspects’ confessions.
The retrial will be the 10th since 1975 for a case in which a defendant was sentenced to death or life imprisonment, according to the Supreme Court.