Sadamichi Hirasawa was sentenced to death in part because of a one-off admission that he killed 12 people with poison and took money from a branch of Teikoku Ginko (Imperial Bank) in Tokyo in 1948. The Teigin Incident, as the crime became known, was one of postwar Japan’s most sensational mass-murder cases.
Hirasawa’s lawyers, however, are attempting to reopen the case by using what they call his temporary confession as evidence to prove his innocence.
In an appeal for a retrial filed with the Tokyo High Court last November, the lawyers submitted an expert opinion written by Sumio Hamada, professor emeritus of psychology at Nara Women’s University, who closely examined interrogation records to conclude Hirasawa knew nothing about the crime for which he was accused and ultimately convicted.
“Hirasawa turned to confess (to) the crime after denying his involvement, but the confession statements show he knew nothing about the crucial points — how he (allegedly) obtained the poison, how the victims died and how he used the (stolen) money. He did not have to conceal them once he admitted to the murder,” Hamada said.
“He even told interrogators that he found it difficult to make what he was saying consistent. It indicates Hirasawa struggled to draw the plot of the crime on the assumption that he himself was the culprit.”
“The records of Hirasawa’s statements also show interrogators, for their part, had no doubts about his involvement in the crime,” added Hamada, who has issued expert opinions by studying statements of crime suspects in many other high profile murder cases.
“When inconsistencies emerged, the interrogators helped him make an adjustment without considering the possibility that he might be innocent.”
Following his arrest based on flimsy evidence in August 1948 — seven months after the mass-poisoning — Hirasawa initially denied perpetrating the crime, only to own up to it one month later.
Although he changed his plea again to innocent at the start of his trial, he received the death penalty, which was finalized in 1955.
He sought a retrial, helped by his adopted son, Takehiko, but died in a Tokyo prison hospital on May 10, 1987, at the age of 95 following a 39-year incarceration.
Takehiko, whose real father was a famous writer supporting Hirasawa, continued efforts to get his adoptive father exonerated posthumously. Takehiko, however, was found dead at his home in 2013 at the age of 54.
With Takehiko’s death, it was assumed the legal quest to exonerate Hirasawa was over. However, the late inmate’s lawyers urged his relatives to take over the attempt to achieve justice, according to Keiichiro Ichinose, the chief lawyer.
While only lineal relatives are allowed to pursue such action under the Japanese legal system, those of Hirasawa’s had been reluctant to step forward due to social prejudice.
Responding to the calls, one relative agreed to become the party to revive the retrial quest — the 20th appeal — and a civil group was formed in late May to support the unpaid effort to reopen the case.
At a meeting to launch the group, Hamada said, “It must be difficult (for others) to comprehend . . . that a suspect (can make) a false confession, which may lead to a death sentence. But the Teigin and other criminal cases show a wrongly suspected person may have no choice but to behave as the real culprit amid daylong, day-after-day questioning, even when not facing violent pressure, such as torture.”
“I believe the ‘confession’ of Hirasawa can be proof of his innocence,” Hamada told around 80 attendees.
Another pillar of the latest retrial appeal is the psychological evaluation of the eyewitness testimony, including by survivors of the Teigin Incident, conducted by Surugadai University professor Satoshi Hara and other researchers.
“The eyewitnesses were required to identify Hirasawa several months after the . . . Teigin Incident, but their memories must have been affected in the wake of massive reports about his arrest and other factors,” Hara said at the meeting.
He suggested his argument was demonstrated by experiments carried out under similar situations involving Hirasawa and the Teigin eyewitnesses.
“I have to say (the) testimonies of (the) eyewitnesses (were) easily contaminated and fragile, thus they are not admissible,” Hara said.
Hara also said that while eyewitnesses should be required to identify a culprit from a police lineup of several people with similar looks, those in the Teigin case were asked to point out the suspect in an interrogation room where only Hirasawa was present.
Many mysteries still remain over the Teigin Incident, one of which is what kind of poison was used.
The court determined it was potassium cyanide, but it would have affected the victims immediately. Several died some time after a man, said to be Hirasawa posing as a health official, administered the drug.
Given the delayed effect and the murderer’s sophisticated modus operandi, some argue that a person connected to a secret wartime Japanese military unit known to have worked on chemical weapons must have been involved in the robbery-murders.
The civil group, meanwhile, also aims to restore the reputation of Hirasawa as a painter, said Eizo Yamagiwa, one of its founders.
Hirasawa was a famed painter before his arrest, and he left hundreds of drawings produced in his prison cell. “We hope that not only his pre-arrest works but also those drawn in prison will win attention so Hirasawa could be recognized in the art world,” said Yamagiwa, a longtime human rights activist.
“Many people have suffered false accusations in postwar Japan, and the Teigin Incident, given overdependence on a confession and distorted eyewitness testimony, is (rooted in) misjudgment,” he said, adding that exonerating Hirasawa would help end the injustices of Japan’s judiciary.