On June 4 the Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office freed a 62-year-old man who had served 17 years of a life sentence for the 1990 kidnapping and murder of a 4-year-old girl after a new DNA test suggested that he was innocent. Acknowledging that the DNA test result serves as new evidence that would likely to exonerate Mr. Toshikazu Sugaya, the prosecution said it would not object to a retrial.
Mr. Sugaya had long sought a retrial, and now his acquittal appears certain. It is clear that basic errors were committed during the initial investigation. Both the police and the prosecution should determine where their investigation went wrong and resolve not to repeat the errors.
A 4-year-old girl went missing from a parking lot of a pachinko parlor in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, on May 12, 1990, and was found dead beside a river the next day. A year and a half later, the Tochigi prefectural police requested that Mr. Sugaya come in for questioning. On the first day of questioning he reportedly confessed to the crime after he was informed that a DNA test had identified him as the perpetrator.
At the start of Mr. Sugaya’s first trial in Utsunomiya District Court, he pleaded guilty, but later he began insisting on his innocence. Nonetheless, in 1993 he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, as sought by the prosecution. His appeals were turned down by the Tokyo High Court and the Supreme Court in 1996 and 2000, respectively.
An important lesson from this case is that innocent people can and do make false confessions when under pressure from investigators. Although police today videotape interrogation procedures in which a police officer reads an investigator’s record of a criminal suspect’s oral statements and the suspect then indicates his or her approval of the content, the Ashikaga case shows that this is not enough. At the very least, the scope of video recording should be expanded to the extent to which one can trace important changes in the tone and direction of a confession.
This case marked the first in which the Supreme Court recognized the credibility of a DNA test and accepted the test results as evidence. The defense counsel, however, questioned the credibility of the DNA test and requested a retrial.
After the Supreme Court ruled against Mr. Sugaya in 2000 and the Utsunomiya District Court turned down the defense counsel’s request for a retrial filed in 2002, the defense counsel appealed to the Tokyo High Court, which in December 2008 decided to have the DNA evidence retested. A forensic examiner recommended by the prosecution and another recommended by the defense counsel carried out separate DNA tests. Both tests concluded that DNA from dried fluid found on the girl’s clothing did not match Mr. Sugaya’s.
To exclude the possibility that the dried fluid was merely perspiration from police investigators and court officials, the Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office had DNA samples taken from some 70 people. Since none of these samples matched the DNA of the body fluid on the clothing, it was ascertained that the DNA belonged to the victim’s murderer.
On the basis of the DNA test conducted by the prosecution’s forensic expert, the prosecutors office said the DNA found on the clothing is probably from the perpetrator’s semen, adding that the test result, as evidence that is prerequisite for a retrial, would in all likelihood lead to a not-guilty ruling for Mr. Sugaya.
It has been 17 and a half years since the arrest of Mr. Sugaya. The prosecutors office’s admission that his acquittal at retrial is a foregone conclusion, as well as its decision to release him from prison, mean that the prosecution can no longer insist that Mr. Sugaya is guilty of murder. To prevent false charges, it is imperative that both the police and the prosecution go over their investigation thoroughly to find out where they made mistakes. The courts must do the same.
The first DNA tests used as evidence in the early 1990s were far less accurate than today’s DNA tests. For this reason, authorities need to re-examine the investigation of criminal cases that used older DNA test results as evidence and ensure evidence is preserved for possible new DNA tests. The judiciary should readily accept requests for new DNA tests from those who believe they were wrongly convicted. In doing so, it should not require them to go through the difficult procedure of requesting a retrial.
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