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Audio tapes recorded some 17 years ago of Mr. Toshikazu Sugaya being questioned during a murder investigation reveal how investigators can manipulate suspects into making false confessions. The recordings, which were played over two days (Jan. 21-22) of Mr. Sugaya’s retrial in Utsunomiya District Court, serve as a warning against over-emphasizing the importance of confessions as documented in investigators’ written records of oral statements.

Mr. Sugaya served 17 1/2 years of a life sentence in prison after his conviction of the May 1990 murder of a 4-year-old girl in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture. He was released last June and a new trial ordered following the results of a new DNA test.

When the police first arrested him on Dec. 2, 1991, he confessed to the crime. But according to a recording made Dec. 7, 1992, of a prosecutor interrogating him about two more unsolved cases (involving the deaths of two 5-year-old girls, one in 1979 and another in 1984), Mr. Sugaya denied involvement in all three cases: “I can absolutely say” that “I am not involved.” When the prosecutor pointed out that he had confessed to the Ashikaga murder at the time of his arrest, he said he had feared being punched and kicked if he continued denying his involvement.

A Dec. 8, 1992, recording again has Mr. Sugaya at first saying “Absolutely not!” The prosecutor then mentions the results of the (original) DNA test and later asks, “Why don’t you make eye contact? You never do.” In tears, Mr. Sugaya says, “I’m sorry, please forgive me,” and admits killing the girl.

The prosecutor’s written record of the sessions neglects to mention that Mr. Sugaya initially denied his involvement. This omission underscores why the entire interrogation process should be videotaped. Even though the prosecutor did not use threatening language, Mr. Sugaya was manipulated into admitting to murder.

The court has banned defense counsel from distributing copies of the recordings. This is wrong. People should have a chance to hear the tapes to understand how a false charge was built. The court should also determine how other investigators helped to pressure Mr. Sugaya into making false confessions.

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