The decision last week by a Kagoshima court granting a retrial to a 90-year-old woman convicted of murdering her brother-in-law in 1979 points yet again to the possibility of a wrongful conviction. The case at hand lacks hard evidence and was built mainly on confessions that might have been guided by investigators and testimony whose credibility is now thrown into doubt. It was in fact the second court decision to order the woman’s retrial — a 2002 decision by the same court was reversed by a higher court following an appeal by prosecutors. The prosecutors shouldn’t try to block the retrial this time. Investigation authorities and the judiciary instead need to look into why the charges and the conviction against her were allowed to stand for such a long time despite all the doubts cited in the latest court decision.
Ayako Haraguchi, who was 52 when she was arrested, served 10 years behind bars after her guilty verdict was finalized in 1981. During police investigations and court proceedings, Haraguchi consistently denied killing Kunio Nakamura in Osaki, Kagoshima Prefecture, in 1979, and filed her first retrial plea in 1995. The Kagoshima District Court ordered a retrial in 2002, saying that the credibility of testimony by confessed accomplices that implicated her needed to be re-examined because they appeared to contradict the conditions of the victim’s body. That decision was overturned, however, by a higher court two years later upon the appeal by prosecutors. Her second attempt for a retrial was also rejected. The decision last Wednesday by the Kagoshima District Court ordering a retrial was in response to her third plea.
In recent years, the rapid advance in DNA analysis technology served as a crucial factor in court decisions for retrials in the 1997 murder of a Tokyo Electric Power Co. employee, which led to the 2012 acquittal of Nepalese man who was serving a life term, and the 1966 murder of a family of four in Shimizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, in which Iwao Hakamada was released in 2014 after 48 years in prison.
Unlike these examples, the case against Haraguchi effectively lacked material evidence linking her to the murder — investigators charged that she and the accomplices strangled the victim with a towel but were unable to identify the towel used in the murder — and relied mostly on the confessions by the victim’s two brothers, including Haraguchi’s husband at the time, and a nephew that they collaborated with her in killing the victim and dumping his body in a cattle stable. Their confessions were also backed up by the testimony of Haraguchi’s sister-in-law that she saw Haraguchi approach one of the brothers about killing the victim and that she heard him say that he had murdered him.
What played a key role in casting the testimony in doubt was an expert analysis by a psychologist commissioned by Haraguchi’s defense team. The psychologist opined that it was “highly probable” the sister-in-law’s testimony included information not based on her own experience, based on which the district court determined that it’s “difficult to entirely accept the credibility of the testimony.”
The court also cast doubt on the credibility of the accomplices — who had problems in their intellectual capacity — saying that their accounts over key parts of the crime wavered in unexplainable ways and that they could have been guided by the investigators in their confessions. It thereby concluded that suspicions cannot be dispelled that the alleged crime by Haraguchi and the accomplices did not take place. The court even said there is no evidence to determine that the victim had suffocated to death — as the court decision that convicted Haraguchi concluded.
Given the lack of objective evidence, it seems clear that the case against Haraguchi was built on shaky ground. The question that must be asked now is why all these obvious doubts were left unheeded in the process of her investigation, indictment and conviction, and through her repeated attempts to win a retrial. The investigation and judiciary authorities need to find some answers in the retrial process. The Kagoshima District Public Prosecutor’s Office is reportedly weighing an appeal of the latest court decision. But the prosecutors should follow the principle of criminal justice that the benefit of doubt goes to the accused. If they still have a case against Haraguchi, they should make it in a retrial.