Last in a three-part series
Former assistant nurse Mika Nishiyama served out a 12-year prison term, having been convicted of killing a patient by pulling out a respirator tube, before finally being released in August 2017.
While in prison, she wrote more than 350 letters to her parents claiming her innocence. Reading through the letters, the investigative reporting team at the Chunichi Shimbun, along with Nishiyama’s defense team, came to suspect that she might have some kind of disability that could have led her to make false confessions.
Therefore, in April 2017, while Nishiyama was in prison waiting for a court decision over a retrial, they asked a psychiatrist and a clinical psychologist to analyze whether she had any developmental or intellectual disabilities.
In the first trial of the case at the Otsu District Court, it was revealed that Nishiyama had romantic feelings for a police officer who interrogated her. But in its 2005 ruling, the court dismissed any impact on the case. “It is normally unthinkable for someone to make a false murder confession just to get a man’s attention,” the court said in its ruling.
However, if Nishiyama had been known to have developmental or intellectual disabilities, the basis on which the court came to its judgment could have been different.
The psychiatrist and clinical psychologist who evaluated Nishiyama were shocked to see the answers she wrote down in response to their questions.
She was asked how she would respond if she were driving a car, stopped by a police officer and asked why she was driving at a speed of 60 kph in front of a school.
“I’m sorry. I’ve always driven at this speed and no one said anything about it,” she wrote.
Based on their experiences conducting the same type of evaluation on hundreds of people, the experts pointed out that her answer stood out, saying that respondents normally give excuses such as that they were rushing to attend to a sick family member.
Her response showed that she didn’t appear to be able to understand that her answers could put her in a more difficult situation, they said, adding that she showed no intention whatsoever to protect herself.
Effects of disability
Also noteworthy was a letter Nishiyama wrote to her parents two months after she was arrested. The letter didn’t show any signs that Nishiyama was aware of the graveness of her situation.
“Meals here (at the detention house) are delicious. They give me snacks and they give me ice cream during summer. I hope the trial ends soon so that I can go home,” she wrote in September 2004.
In October 2006, she wrote, “I’m sorry for saying I did something that I didn’t do and ending up in such a situation.”
Psychiatrist Masanori Koide, 55, who has examined many people with developmental or intellectual disabilities, evaluated Nishiyama after reading all of the records of her meetings with her parents, her letters, her report cards and essays she wrote when she was in elementary and junior high school.
The test results showed that she has a mild intellectual disability, with an intellectual level equivalent to that of a child aged between 9 and 12. She was also diagnosed as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and showing symptoms of autism spectrum disorder.
“Because she has a certain intellectual level, she is in a zone where others don’t recognize her disabilities and treat her normally. There are many such people,” said Koide, who is based in Ichinomiya, Aichi Prefecture.
Kenichi Ido, Nishiyama’s chief lawyer at her second retrial, said the results “were unexpected.” Ido, who was present during the evaluation, said he had met Nishiyama many times and exchanged letters with her.
The fact that not one lawyer mentioned the possibility of her having intellectual disabilities during the first trial and the first retrial indicates the difficulty of recognizing such conditions from usual situations or everyday conversations.
During the evaluation, Nishiyama suddenly began to stammer and clam up when her statements became incoherent.
“Children aged around 10 sometimes tell incoherent lies when they are in trouble without thinking ahead,” said the clinical psychologist who conducted the evaluation. “It isn’t surprising if she behaved in the same way.”
Even though the respirator alarm didn’t go off for the 72-year-old comatose patient who later died, Nishiyama said it had after being intimidated by the police interrogator. She continued to lie because she was attracted to the police officer interrogating her, who she perceived as kind, aiming to tell him what she thought he wanted to hear.
Later, when a nurse who was in charge at the time came under harsh interrogation on suspicion of falling asleep and failing to notice the alarm, Nishiyama tried to retract her statement about the alarm.
Since the police refused to accept this, Nishiyama became desperate and came to suffer from depression. That was when she decided to lie and say she had killed the patient, she wrote in a letter to her parents in April 2006.
People with developmental and intellectual disabilities “tend to lose control of themselves when they panic,” Koide said.
There is a high possibility that Nishiyama, with an intellectual level of a child and a tendency to panic, was forced to make false confessions in line with the scenario developed by investigators, without thinking about what the lies would bring about. Isn’t it possible that she was prosecuted based on these lies?
The Act on Support for Persons with Developmental Disabilities went into force in 2005, the same year that the Otsu District Court handed down a prison sentence for Nishiyama.
Ten years later, the same district court dismissed her request for a retrial, stating that “the credibility of confessions should be left to the free judgement of the judge.”
This freedom can be no more than a self-justification unless legal authorities correct the excessive dependence on confessions and make judgements based on deep understanding of the law aimed at supporting people with disabilities.
Nishiyama’s disorder is not rare. And there are many others who suffer from hardships like those faced by Nishiyama.