A recent court ruling that sentenced a man to life in prison for the 2005 kidnapping and murder of a 7-year-old girl in Tochigi Prefecture underlines the need for electronic recording of the entire interrogation process in criminal probes to avoid the risk of false charges and convictions. A bill requiring police and prosecutors to make their interrogation of suspects transparent by electronically recording the entire process is now before the Diet, but the scope of the cases for which such recording would be mandatory is limited and it would leave room for investigators to escape the obligation.

In the case of Takuya Katsumata, 33, found guilty of abducting and killing Yuki Yoshida in the Tochigi city then known as Imaichi in 2005, prosecutors lacked key material evidence linking him to the crime and relied on confessions made during interrogations to build their case. The Utsunomiya District Court on Friday gave him a life term as demanded by the prosecutors, judging his confession — which he reversed in court saying it had been coerced — to be credible enough to convict him. Katsumata’s defense plans to appeal.

The prosecution provided the team of three professional and six lay judges at the court a total of about seven hours of video-taped records of Katsumata’s interrogation — in an effort to show that his confessions were not obtained illegally or coerced by the interrogators. In the video shown in the courtroom, Katsumata was seen frequently wavering during the interrogations — admitting to having killed the victim at one point, denying he committed the crime, and then saying he did it — and occasionally reacting emotionally to questions. He signed his deposition papers, which was adopted as evidence by the court.

As Katsumata had pleaded innocent and the prosecutors lacked hard evidence linking him to the crime, the focus of the trial was on whether he had made the confession of his own will — or had been coerced into making false statements — and whether his statements matched objective facts. The video must have played a crucial role in convincing the judges that his confession was voluntary. The court determined that his statements during the interrogation had concrete details that nobody other than the killer could have known.

The problem was that the seven-hour video did not cover the entire interrogation process. Some of the interrogations were not recorded, including his initial confession. And the 80 hours that had been recorded were whittled down to the scenes that both the prosecutors and the defense counsel had consented to show in court.

According to the prosecutors, Katsumata first confessed to killing the girl in February 2014 while he was detained for unrelated offenses — after which the prosecutors started video-recording his interrogations. He was also subsequently questioned by police on a voluntary basis for 3½ months — for which no electronic records were taken — until he was served a new warrant on suspicion of murder in June 2014.

During the trial, Katsumata’s defense argued that he had been led and coerced by the investigators to make a false confession before the video-recording of his interrogation began. During closed-door interrogations over an extended period, the investigators pressured him to confess, and led him in that direction by suggesting that he would face a more lenient sentence if he admitted his guilt, the lawyers charged. Katsumata told the court that a police interrogator forced him to verbally repeat an apology for murdering the victim 50 times — which he said gave him the illusion that he really killed the girl — and that he was slapped in the face when he denied doing it. The prosecution and police said these charges were fabricated by him and his defense to cast doubts on the confession.

Such questions would not have come up if the entire interrogation process had been recorded. Due to the incomplete recording and the conflicting accounts by the prosecution and the defense, the judges — especially the citizens randomly chosen to serve as lay judges — must have faced a tough decision as to whether the confession was voluntary and credible. The ruling was due at the end of March, but the court delayed handing down the ruling for eight days.

In recent years, the police and prosecutors have begun electronic recording of their interrogation process on a voluntary basis — after they faced public criticism that false confessions obtained through coercive and other illegal means had resulted in wrongful charges and convictions. But if investigators are given the discretion to selectively decide what video records of the interrogations to make and keep, the records can be used in a way that can misleadingly influence the judges hearing the cases.

The bill on reform of the criminal justice system, now before the Upper House after clearing the Lower House last year, makes it mandatory for police and prosecutors to electronically record the entire interrogation process of arrested suspects. But the requirement applies only to criminal cases that will be handled in lay judge trials, such as murder cases, and cases that had been dug up by prosecutors’ own investigations. These together account for a mere 3 percent of all criminal cases.

If suspects under arrest for offenses not subject to the requirement confess to crimes such as murder — as in Katsumata’s case — the process that led to their confessions will not be recorded. The investigators will be given the discretion to skip the electronic recording if they determine that otherwise they cannot obtain meaningful statements from the suspects. Given the loopholes that will remain in the system, discussions should continue on whether the measures are sufficient to eliminate the chance that wrongful convictions based on false confessions will take place.

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