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High court upholds life term for ’05 Tochigi killer after quashing lower court ruling; defense appeals

Kyodo, Staff Report

The Tokyo High Court sentenced a man to life in prison Friday for the 2005 murder of a girl in Tochigi Prefecture, retaining a lower court’s punishment but repealing its ruling for excessive reliance on interrogation footage.

Takuya Katsumata, 36, who was arrested more than eight years after the body of 7-year-old Yuki Yoshida was found, initially admitted to murdering her but later retracted his statements. His lawyer immediately appealed Friday’s ruling.

The first-grader was found dead in a mountain forest in Ibaraki Prefecture a day after she vanished on Dec. 1, 2005, while on her way home from elementary school in what was then the city of Imaichi.

In the ruling, the high court expressed “strong doubts” about the Utsunomiya District Court’s heavy reliance on video footage of the interrogations to gauge the credibility of the defendant’s confession. The court said using the footage in such a manner could lead to a judgment based on “impressions,” rather than objective thought.

“It was illegal that the lower court ruling found the defendant guilty through interrogation recordings,” Toshiaki Fujii, the presiding judge, said.

The was in contrast to the Utsunomiya District Court’s ruling, which had judged it was not possible to find Katsumata guilty solely based on circumstantial evidence, and relied on confessions he’d made in recorded interrogations.

Despite reaching the same conclusion as the lower court on his guilt, as well as the need to hand down a life sentence, the high court quashed the content of the April 2016 ruling by the Utsunomiya District Court, saying its determination of the crime based on recorded interrogations was “illegal.”

Footage of the interrogations was shown for more than seven hours at the district court, leading Katsumata’s defense team to argue that it gave lay judges the impression that the defendant was guilty.

But the high court, which only uses professional judges, said there was enough circumstantial evidence to find Katsumata guilty.

“Overall, circumstantial evidence proves the defendant is the culprit without reasonable doubt,” the ruling said.

Among the circumstantial evidence examined, a letter Katsumata wrote to his mother was considered significant by the high court, which regarded the correspondence to be an apology for the murder.

In the letter, which he handed to his mother after confessing to the charge, Katsumata referred to “the incident that I caused,” and said, “I am really sorry for causing trouble.”

The high court said some key parts of Katsumata’s story were reliable but acknowledged he may have lied about some details because they seemed to contradict the condition of the girl’s body and the site where she was found.

Amid a lack of compelling physical evidence, such as a murder weapon, a focal point had been the credibility of Katsumata’s confessions during his detention on a different charge in February 2014. He was arrested on suspicion of murder in June the same year, and gave conflicting statements before settling on denial in May 2015.

The district court had found the defendant’s recorded confessions credible, saying they included “details and vividness that can only be offered by the culprit.”

His defense counsel, meanwhile, had argued that Katsumata made false confessions during the illegal interrogations and that there are doubts about their credibility, given that the condition of the girl’s body and the site where it was found both contradicted them.

But the prosecutors denied that any coercion or maneuvering was used during the process and insisted that the interrogations were conducted appropriately. They said the grounds used by lawyers to point out the contradictions in the confessions were “unscientific.”

“The ruling put a lot of focus on Katsumata’s letter to his mother, but the other (pieces of) circumstantial evidence available were merely ruled as ‘consistent’ with each other . . . The reasoning behind the ruling is sort of patchy, with some parts that are meticulous and others that are very rough,” explained Kaku Imamura, one of the defendant’s lawyers, after the ruling.

“There were some victories for the defense in terms of the legal arguments we put forward,” added Hideki Kashima, another member of the defense counsel, referring in particular to the high court’s findings on the legality of recorded interrogations.

“That being said, those victories don’t mean anything, given that the court handed down a life imprisonment sentence,” Kashima said.

The victim vanished on her way home and was found dead in a forest some 60 km away from where she was last seen, with 10 stab wounds to the chest.

Her father issued a statement saying that he is disappointed that Katsumata continues to plead not guilty, but welcomes the high court’s ruling.

“It took a long time, but I’m relieved. We hope this ruling will become final as early as possible to end this trial,” he said.

Japan began using audiovisual recordings of interrogations about 10 years ago, but the government is expanding the scope of the coverage. The system is aimed at preventing the police and prosecutors from conducting illegal investigations.