The Tokyo High Court on Monday overturned the Shizuoka District Court’s decision to reopen the 1966 murder case involving former professional boxer Iwao Hakamada, who was convicted of killing four people, despite recent DNA evidence that undermined his prosecution.
The case, often cited as an example of how miscarriages of justice take place in the Japanese judicial system, has seen Hakamada become an emblem of wrongful convictions after spending over four decades behind bars, most of it on death row.
The high court, presided over by Justice Takaaki Oshima, rejected the lower court’s ruling that the DNA on bloodstained clothes found near the crime scene, presumably worn by the murderer, did not match Hakamada’s DNA. The high court claimed that the results were not credible and fell short of being “indisputable” evidence.
The ruling also rejected the defense team’s claim that the bloodstained clothes might have been fabricated, dismissing the accusation as a mere “abstract possibility.”
The ruling, however, did not overturn the district court’s decision to release Hakamada from detention, nor its suspension of his death penalty, claiming that the final judgment on detention should wait until the case is finalized, given Hakamada’s frail health.
The more than four decades of detention have diminished Hakamada’s mental health, and he also reportedly has dementia.
Hakamada was held at the Tokyo Detention center for a total of 48 years until the Shizuoka District Court ruled in favor of reopening the case in 2014, allowing him to be released. The Shizuoka District Court also decided to suspend his death penalty.
At a news conference after the ruling, Hakamada’s legal team said it will appeal.
Despite losing the retrial request, Hideko Hakamada, the defendant’s sister and longtime advocate, said she was “slightly relieved that Iwao won’t have to be taken into custody.”
Many people, including politicians, members of citizens’ groups and the Japanese Bar Association all expressed disbelief and disappointment at the ruling.
“This judgment is not based on evidence, but rather on mistaken assumptions,” said Hideyo Ogawa, a lawyer on the defense team.
“We strongly believe that we can prove (Hakamada’s innocence) with factual proof,” he continued.
“I’m devastated at the ruling,” Nobuhiro Terazawa, a member of a citizens’ group campaigning for Hakamada’s freedom, said at the news conference.
“Iwao Hakamada is posing a question to (Japan’s) judicial system, and we have to answer to that question,” he continued.
Hakamada, who was a live-in employee at a soybean processing firm, was arrested in August 1966 on suspicion of robbery, murder and arson after the firm’s senior managing director, his wife and two children were found dead with stab wounds at their burned-down house in Shizuoka Prefecture.
Accused of robbery, murder, and arson, Hakamada was sentenced to death in 1968. His death sentence was finalized in 1980 by the Supreme Court.