The second criminal section of the Nagoya High Court last week rejected an eighth request for the retrial of Masaru Okunishi, 88, who has been on death row for the fatal poisoning of five women in 1961. It is deplorable that the court rejected the defense counsel’s request for disclosure of yet unrevealed evidence in the prosecution’s possession.
Okunishi has appealed the high court decision to the Supreme Court. The top court should make a decision that is convincing from every angle, upholding the principle that when there is uncertainty about a person’s guilt, priority should be given to protecting the interests of the accused.
The fact that Okunishi was found innocent in his first trial and that at one time his request for retrial was accepted by the Nagoya court underlines the need for the judiciary to re-examine the case to ensure that no doubt remains over the justness of Okunishi’s conviction.
The murders occurred on the night of March 28, 1961, when 17 women were poisoned after drinking white wine at a community meeting in Nabari, Mie Prefecture. Five of them, including Okunishi’s wife and his girlfriend, died while 12 fell sick. Initially Okunishi confessed to investigators that he laced the wine with a pesticide to put an end to a love triangle. But he retracted his confession before he was indicted.
The Tsu District Court in 1964 acquitted him on the grounds that his confession to the crime was unnatural. But the Nagoya High Court sentenced him to death in 1969 mostly on the basis of the evidence used in the first trial. The Supreme Court finalized the sentence in 1972.
Okunishi has since repeatedly filed requests for retrial. The first criminal section of the Nagoya High Court in 2005 accepted his seventh request by adopting new evidence indicating that the pesticide he confessed to having put in the wine was not detected in it. But after the prosecution’s objection, the second criminal section of the same high court annulled the decision in 2006. The Supreme Court eventually finalized the 2006 high court decision in 2013.
Time is running short for Okunishi, whose health became critical in 2013 and who is now bedridden. To make a fair judgment on his plea for a retrial, an accurate picture of the murders must be reconstructed. To achieve that, it is indispensable that all evidence is made available to the court for detailed examination. The prosecution itself admitted earlier that it possesses much undisclosed evidence.
After the introduction of the lay judge system, a procedure was established requiring the prosecution to disclose more evidence. Leaving the decision on disclosure of evidence in retrial-request proceedings to the discretion of prosecutors and the court not only runs counter to the basic principle for a fair trial but also is inconsistent with the new practice under the lay judge system.
In its eighth request for retrial, Okunishi’s defense submitted an expert’s opinion concerning the pesticide to the Nagoya High Court, the same evidence submitted in the seventh request, apparently in view of the fact that the Supreme Court made its 2013 decision only about two weeks after the opinion was submitted. The defense counsel also called on the Nagoya court to have the prosecution disclose all evidence it possesses, including investigators’ records of oral statements made by Okunishi and witnesses before he confessed to the crime as well as an expert’s opinion on the fingerprints left on the wine bottle at the crime scene.
The high court dismissed the expert’s opinion concerning the pesticide on the grounds that it was not new evidence, choosing to strictly follow court procedural formalities. It also turned down the defense’s request for the disclosure of all evidence possessed by the prosecution, apparently without citing any reason for doing so.
Given Okunishi’s age and health, a close examination of each piece of evidence in this nearly 54 year old case is all the more important. Unfortunately, the high court’s decision quashed a chance to do that. The Supreme Court should order the prosecution to disclose all evidence in its possession in an effort to ensure that justice has truly been served in this case.