After approving the results of DNA tests that suggested a wrongful conviction had taken place, the Shizuoka District Court on Thursday ordered a retrial of Iwao Hakamada, a 78-year-old man who was sentenced to death in 1968 for the 1966 murder of a family of four in Shimizu, Shizuoka Prefecture. In an unusual step, the court suspended his sentence and ordered his release from the Tokyo Detention House. The prosecution should refrain from appealing the retrial decision to a higher court. If they still believe Hakamada is guilty, they should present convincing evidence at his retrial.

On June 30, 1966, the stabbed bodies of a soybean processing firm executive and three family members were found in the remains of their torched home. In August, the Shizuoka prefectural police arrested Hakamada, a former professional boxer who worked at the same company as the executive, on suspicion of committing burglary, arson and murder. He initially denied the charges but then confessed to them following coercive interrogation sessions that reportedly lasted more than 12 hours a day. At the first trial hearing, however, he changed his plea to innocent.

Hakamada’s trial progressed in a bizarre manner. The prosecution’s opening statement said that Hakamada was wearing pajamas when he committed the crimes. But 14 months after the crimes, investigators suddenly announced that they found five articles of clothing, including a shirt and a pair of trousers, in an 8-ton miso fermentation tank, and argued that Hakamada was wearing these clothes when he committed the crimes. Investigators’ record stated that the clothing contained many blood stains whose color was deep reddish brown. Hakamada’s defense counsel responded by carrying out an experiment of keeping virtually identical clothing with blood stains in a miso tank for the same amount of time. Unlike the evidence presented by the prosecution, this clothing turned the same color as the miso and the bloodstains lost their reddishness. Despite the deeply flawed evidence presented by the prosecution, including the fact that the trousers that Hakamada purportedly wore were too small for him, he was convicted in 1968 and his death sentence was finalized in 1980.

DNA tests conducted in 2011 and 2012 on the clothing used to convict Hakamada suggested that the bloodstains didn’t belong to the victims or Hakamada. Shizuoka District Court presiding judge Hiroaki Murayama accepted the results and voiced his suspicion that the prosecution had fabricated the evidence — a damning statement for a court judge to make. Murayama concluded by saying that the clothing constituted clear evidence that Hakamada should be declared innocent. Calling for his release, Murayama went on to say that as long as the probability of his innocence is very high, continuing to detain him “unendurably” violates justice.

Some 48 years have passed since Hakamada’s arrest and 33 years since the finalization of his death sentence. His suffering under the dangling sword of impending execution is immeasurable and no amount of money can make up for the nearly 50 years of life that he lost behind bars. The prosecution should accept the decision and turn their focus to finding the real culprit. This case also highlights the fundamental flaw of capital punishment. Once carried out, it can never be reversed if a wrongful conviction has occurred.

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