National / Media | MEDIA MIX

TV Asahi gets 'The Scoop' on false convictions

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

Last week the Tokyo Shimbun ran an article about Keiko Aoki and Tatsuhiro Boku, the couple convicted of murdering Aoki’s 11-year-old daughter in 1995 and sentenced to life in prison. The upcoming retrial, which will likely reverse the guilty verdict, may reveal that the Osaka pair were coerced into making bogus confessions because the prosecution had no solid evidence showing they had deliberately started the fire that killed the girl. All they had was a hunch based on the fact that the couple had taken out a life insurance policy on her. Tokyo Shimbun says the retrial will “point out the responsibilities of the police, the prosecutors, the court and the mass media” in this miscarriage of justice.

There have been several high-profile enzai (false accusation) stories in recent years, but this may be the first time a press outlet has damned its own profession for being complicit in one. As the defense lawyer in the case told the paper, as soon as Aoki and Boku were arrested, the media assumed they were guilty, and didn’t hesitate to shape their coverage around that assumption based on statements from the police and the prosecutor, who knew reporters would take whatever they gave them and run with it. This is the norm for a lot of criminal cases, but when false convictions based on investigative misconduct come to light, the press shrugs it off, oblivious to its own role in the travesty.

But there is one media outlet that has made a point of reporting on enzai over the years. TV Asahi’s occasional in-depth news show “The Scoop” has covered all the well-known false conviction cases and a few that are not so well-known. The show reviewed the Aoki-Boku case almost 10 years ago and even recreated the fire the couple was accused of setting in order to demonstrate how it was probably an accident — well before the defense team did its own re-enactment as evidence to move for a retrial. In addition, the show explained in detail why the couple had taken out an insurance policy on a pre-adolescent, something that turned out to be unexceptional and which no other media bothered to look into.

The program is still available on YouTube, as are many of the other enzai reports “The Scoop” carried out, and taken together they constitute a convincing condemnation of the Japanese criminal justice system. What comes through is not so much the idea that prosecutors and police get the story wrong, but that they purposely manipulate the story to get what they want: a conviction at any cost.

Though there have been more dramatic enzai cases, the one that brought the most attention to the prosecution’s venality was the arrest and trial of Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare official Atsuko Muraki in 2009 for mail fraud. Thanks to a subordinate who first implicated Muraki in the fabricated crime and then retracted his confession in court, the truth, or at least much of it, came out. Eventually, the head prosecutor in the case, Tsunehiko Maeda, was himself indicted and later sentenced to 18 months in prison. As Muraki told the Tokyo Shimbun, while she was dismayed that Maeda would make up evidence, she’s more shocked by the fact that the prosecutor’s office “lied as a group,” meaning the problem was not limited to one over-zealous functionary. Maeda took the fall for the team.

As it turns out, the Osaka District Public Prosecutor’s Office’s elite Special Investigation Division (tokusobu) was after a bigger fish, Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Hajime Ishii. The plan was to pressure Muraki into falsely accusing the politician of being behind the mail fraud scheme, because the name of the game for prosecutors is promotion to ever higher positions, and the best way to prove one’s worth is to go after big shots in business and politics.

In this regard, the most penetrating probe on “The Scoop” was the case of Kanzabu Soejima, the head of the Saga Prefecture Agricultural Cooperatives Association, who was arrested for misappropriation of funds in 2005. In January of the following year, Soejima was acquitted, and gave his story to the program. Apparently, factions within the union wanted to oust Soejima, and enlisted the help of the prosecutor’s office, whose chief saw an opportunity to make a name for himself. He put a rookie in charge of the case. That way, if the case fell through, the rookie would take the blame. If it succeeded, the chief would claim the glory.

And the rookie did take the blame, but several years later when Muraki was in the news and he was out of a job, he recognized the same methodologies used in her case that he used to prosecute Soejima, including marathon interrogation sessions incorporating violent threats to get the defendant to sign pre-written statements. He also contacted the producers of “The Scoop” and told them everything, including the fact that his old boss had since been promoted to an even higher position within the national criminal justice hierarchy.

Unfortunately, the show’s dedicated search for the truth hasn’t made much of a difference. If the public now knows the word “enzai” it mostly has to do with the accumulation of embarrassing cases, but it seems obvious that these cases are just the tip of the iceberg. Getting below the surface will require a press that is diligent from the start of an investigation, and not just for high-profile cases.

In any event, the system doesn’t seem to be worried. Though the Diet is now working on a revision to the criminal procedure law that will mandate recorded interrogations and more transparent evidence disclosure, the law’s reach will be limited and may actually exacerbate the enzai problem by, for example, making it easier for prosecutors to engage in wiretapping.

Why are these people so powerful? Pointing to their suspiciously high conviction rate of 99 percent, they always imply that, however dodgy you find their methods, they’ve kept Japan safe for decades.

But who keeps us safe from them? Not the media.

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