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In his first trial, 52-year-old Takemitsu Mori was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Osaka District Court for murdering his former daughter-in-law and her 1-year-old son in an apartment in Hirano Ward, Osaka, and then setting the apartment afire in April 2002. In the appellate trial, the Osaka High Court sentenced him to death, despite the lack of material evidence directly linking the man to the crimes.

On April 27, the Supreme Court’s No. 3 Petite Bench, in a 4-1 decision, quashed both lower court sentences and remanded the case to the Osaka District Court. It said it is difficult to find the man guilty on the basis of purely circumstantial evidence.

It is rare for the Supreme Court to cite mistaken recognition of facts and quash a death sentence handed down by a high court. The ruling is a warning to police investigators and public prosecutors who try to build cases solely on circumstantial evidence.

The prosecution had cited a match between DNA on a cigarette butt found at the crime scene and Mr. Mori’s DNA as evidence that he was there the day the crimes were committed. The Supreme Court, however, noted that a color change in the cigarette filter raised the possibility that the filter had been discarded several days earlier. It also said the lower courts failed to fully consider the possibility, raised by the defense counsel, that the mother had discarded the contents of a portable ash tray she had brought from Mr. Mori’s home.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court asserted that an eyewitness account of a man resembling Mr. Mori near the crime scene and other “indirect facts” were insufficient to find guilt.

The top court has created a new standard for rendering guilty judgments when only circumstantial evidence is submitted: The evidence must demonstrate that the suspect possesses knowledge that he or she could have gained only by committing the crime. The ruling means that the prosecution henceforth must exert more care both in their investigations and in the selection of evidence for use in trials. Judges, including lay judges, must firmly uphold the principle that no punishment can be meted out when uncertainty exists about guilt.

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