National / Crime & Legal

Critics hit Japan's new plea-bargaining system, say it opens door to false testimony

Kyodo

Katsumi Murase, a former senior official in the Nagoya Municipal Government, still remembers the time in 2003 when prosecutors interrogated him over a bid-rigging case in connection with a road cleaning contract.

Murase, 69, was arrested and indicted for allegedly leaking crucial information used in the alleged bid-rigging but was later acquitted — a verdict that was finalized.

“Your subordinate claims you should know about it,” Murase recalled one of the prosecutors telling him during the interrogation. His colleagues apparently told prosecutors that Murase had given the green light to leak the winning bid price.

Murase initially denied the allegation, but prosecutors eventually got him to confess to a crime he didn’t commit, saying he was the only one who hadn’t owned up to the charge and that he would be freed if he came clean.

“Back then, my father was in his mid-80s. When I was told that I wouldn’t be able to be with my parents if they die, I really wanted to be free,” Murase said.

After the Diet enacted a law last week to allow changes to the criminal procedure law, including introducing a plea-bargaining system, a growing number of people are voicing worries that cases involving false accusations will increase.

The revised law will allow prosecutors to drop charges or reduce charges if the accused gives evidence against someone presumably also suspected of committing a crime.

Some say this change may lead to false testimony that could result in an innocent person being convicted.

“If an accomplice who has thorough knowledge of a crime provides statements incorporating (falsehoods along) with the truth, it would be difficult to see through the lies,” said Kana Sasakura, a law professor who specializes in criminal procedure at Konan University in Kobe.

In Murase’s case, the Nagoya District Court acquitted him, saying there were “unnatural and irrational points” to his colleagues’ testimony. The court pointed out that his colleagues may have offered false testimony and blamed Murase to lessen their own culpability.

The Nagoya High Court upheld the lower court ruling and his acquittal was finalized after prosecutors opted not to appeal.

Seven years after his arrest, Murase returned to his office as a part-time adviser but no longer bore a grudge.

“They may have just admitted to the charges after being interrogated by prosecutors,” Murase said. “If (prosecutors) had (gone) through (the) evidence thoroughly, I wouldn’t have been arrested.”

In another case, a 34-year-old man was arrested for stealing cash from a home in Edogawa Ward, Tokyo.

Although he denied any wrongdoing, an alleged accomplice in the case, who later was found guilty, testified that the 34-year-old man was the one who came up with the idea for the heist.

The Tokyo District Court acquitted him, saying the accomplice may have named the man instead of the actual perpetrator to avoid revenge.

Since the only evidence was the alleged accomplice’s testimony, the man’s lawyer argued that the case against his client was unjust.

“Since his arrest was made long after the incident took place, it was hard to prove his alibi. He could have been found guilty,” the lawyer said, arguing that the plea-bargaining system also needs to include hard evidence other than testimony from an accused accomplice. The Justice Ministry claims it can deter false testimony by making it a punishable offense. It also says that allowing defense lawyers to be present at plea-bargaining sessions will reduce such concerns.

But Makoto Ibusuki, a professor of criminal procedure law at Seijo University, said suspects’ lawyers won’t be neutral because they will be acting in the best interests of their clients.

“It won’t work as a preventive measure to (protect) innocent people,” Ibusuki said.

Since the recording of interrogations leading up to a plea bargain isn’t mandatory, there is no record to consult to determine whether a deal is appropriate.

Former prosecutor Tsunehiko Maeda, who himself was found guilty of tampering with evidence in a high-profile case that led to the arrest of Atsuko Muraki, a senior health ministry official, agrees, saying the partial recording of interrogations may lead to the innocent being falsely accused.

After the Osaka District Court acquitted Muraki in September 2010, it was revealed that Maeda tampered with evidence and his superior had covered up the tampering. Maeda and his superior subsequently went to prison.

“The incident occurred because of a corrupt custom (among prosecutors) to hide inconvenient evidence,” Maeda said, recalling his days as a prosecutor.

Maeda emphasized the need for prosecutors to disclose all the evidence they have — a common practice in other developed countries.

“Electronic recording isn’t enough, because there is no way to check the process leading up to a (plea-bargaining) session. The possibility of making false accusations will increase,” Maeda said.

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