Give ex-death row inmate the retrial he deserves

Proceedings at the Tokyo High Court to determine whether to reopen the trial of Iwao Hakamada, 81, who spent 48 years behind bars over the 1966 murder of a family of four before being released in 2014, remain slow. The snag in the proceedings is mainly attributable to the dispute over reliability of DNA tests of evidence in the case that led to a Shizuoka District Court decision three years ago to release the former death row inmate. However, the DNA tests are not the only factor casting serious doubts over his conviction. In addition, the elderly man is suffering from failing health. The high court should make greater efforts to reach a conclusion as soon as possible.

On June 30, 1966, the stabbed bodies of a soybean processing company executive and three members of his family were found in the remains of their torched home in Shimizu, Shizuoka Prefecture. In August that year, police arrested Hakamada, who worked at the firm, on suspicion of burglary, arson and murder. Hakamada initially denied the charges but then confessed following nearly 20 interrogation sessions, more than a dozen of which lasted more than 12 hours. During the first hearing of his trial, however, he changed his plea to innocent.

Fourteen months after the crimes, while the first trial was going on at the Shizuoka District Court, investigators said they found five articles of clothing, including a shirt and a pair of trousers, inside a miso fermentation tank at the firm. Although the prosecution had said in its opening statement that Hakamada was wearing pajamas when he committed the crimes, it changed the statement to say that he was wearing that clothing instead. The Shizuoka court sentenced him to death in 1968 and the Supreme Court finalized the ruling in 1980.

In 2014, however, the Shizuoka District Court ordered a retrial of Hakamada, judging that the results of the DNA tests done in 2011 and 2012 on bloodstains on the clothing suggested that a wrongful conviction had taken place. In an unusual step, the court suspended his sentence and ordered his release from the Tokyo Detention House. In explaining its decision, the district court said it is “unbearably” against justice to continue to detain a person convicted on the strength of evidence suspected of having been forged and deprived of freedom while being placed under the horror of pending execution. Although the court said the five articles of clothing were likely to have been planted, the prosecution appealed the retrial decision to the Tokyo High Court.

In the proceedings at the high court, a Tsukuba University professor who carried out the DNA tests testified that the DNA from bloodstains on the clothing did not match Hakamada’s. However, an Osaka Medical College professor, who at the request of the high court examined the method used in the DNA tests, reported that a reagent used in the DNA tests contains an enzyme that dissolves DNA, and on the basis of the report, the prosecution maintains that the method’s ability to extract DNA is extremely low. While the defense counsel for Hakamada is challenging the way the DNA tests were re-examined by the professor, the prosecutors have reportedly indicated it may commission a private research institute to carry out a test to verify the DNA tests. As it is, it is difficult to predict when the court will hand down its decision on whether to reopen Hakamada’s trial.

The reliability of the DNA tests will need to be established. But the high court should take other factors into consideration. In its decision to release Hakamada, the Shizuoka District Court determined that the trousers found in the miso tank did not fit Hakamada. The court also said the bloodstains on clothing presented by prosecutors as evidence were too red for the length of time that they had allegedly been in the miso tank — another factor that casts doubts over the credibility of the evidence.

After the 2014 Shizuoka court decision, a former police officer who took part in the investigation told Hakamada’s defense that he could not find anything inside the miso tank when he searched it with a bamboo stick immediately after the crimes. Another former officer is said to be hinting at the possible planting of evidence. Although the defense asked the high court to summon them as witnesses, no decision has yet been made on the request.

Even the Shizuoka court ruling that sentenced Hakamada to death in 1968 had raised doubts about the police investigation in the case. The ruling said that the police concentrated on obtaining a confession from the suspect by subjecting him to long hours of interrogation while neglecting efforts to collect material evidence. A former judge who wrote the ruling told the media after the 2014 court decision that he strongly believed that Hakamada was innocent. He said that although he had to go along with the two other judges’ position that the accused be sentenced to death, he was hoping that judges in the appellate trials would notice the flaws in the police investigation.

More than three years have passed since Hakamada was released and time is not on his side. The Tokyo High Court should make a decision following the principle that no punishment should be meted out when there are doubts about the guilt.