Hakamada’s bid for a retrial drags on

With the Tokyo High Court overturning the 2014 Shizuoka District Court decision to reopen the trial of Iwao Hakamada for murders committed in 1966 — over which he had already been kept behind bars for 48 years until his release four years ago — the 82-year-old Hakamada will likely have to wait for still longer before a judicial conclusion on his retrial bid. Given the split decisions by the lower courts, the Supreme Court, to which his defense counsel plans to appeal, needs to carefully — but promptly, given Hakamada’s advanced age — examine the case.

In postwar Japan, court decisions have been made to reopen the cases of six death-row inmates. Of the six, Hakamada is the second one whose retrial decision was later reversed — after Masaru Okunishi, who was sentenced to death over the 1961 fatal poisoning case in Nabari, Mie Prefecture. The Nagoya High Court in 2005 decided to reopen Okunishi’s trial — a decision withdrawn the following year by the same court following prosecutors’ challenge. Okunishi died at the age of 89 at a medical prison in Tokyo in 2015 — while his ninth retrial plea was being processed. The four others were found innocent in their retrials.

Hakamada was arrested over the murders of a family of four in Shimizu, Shizuoka Prefecture. Then an employee of the family’s miso-making business, he confessed to the crime following lengthy police interrogations, but pleaded not guilty in court. The Shizuoka District Court ruling in 1968 that sentenced him to death was finalized by the Supreme Court in 1980.

What split the judiciary in Hakamada’s retrial plea was a hitherto unavailable DNA analysis of the bloodstains on articles of clothing that the prosecutors said were worn by the accused when he killed the victims and were found inside a miso tank at the victims’ company. In 2015, the Shizuoka District Court, citing the analysis by a Tsukuba University professor that the DNA type of the bloodstains did not match the blood of either Hakamada or the victims, determined that the clothes likely did not belong to Hakamada and indicated that the clothes, which were found a year after his arrest, could have been planted by police investigators. The district court ordered a suspension of his death sentence and his prompt release from jail.

Acting on prosecutors’ challenge of the decision, the Tokyo High Court reached the opposite conclusion. Based on an Osaka Medical College professor’s examination of the DNA test, the high court determined that the DNA analysis was not credible enough due to “serious doubts” about the scientific grounds of the testing method. Also dismissing the suspicion cited by the district court that the clothes had been planted as “lacking concrete grounds,” the high court said it found no reasonable doubt concerning Hakamada’s conviction over the 1966 murders.

Whether to reopen the trial will now be in the hands of the Supreme Court. Since serious doubts over the case had been cast by the district court, the top court needs to weigh its decision carefully — under the principle that the accused is given the benefit of the doubt. Because of the conflicting judgment of the lower courts, the Supreme Court proceedings is expected to take time.

But the high court proceedings on the prosecutors’ challenge alone took four years. Hakamada’s case is yet another testimony to the lengthy process for seeking and winning retrials in Japan’s criminal justice system. Hakamada filed his first retrial plea in 1981; it was eventually turned down in 2008. The ongoing proceedings concern the second retrial plea filed by his sister, also in 2008.

There are views that the system allowing prosecutors to appeal a court decision for retrial greatly slows the retrial process, and that they should make their case in the retrial instead of contesting the retrial itself. Some lawyers involved in the pursuit of retrials say the prosecutors’ powers on the matter should be restricted — as it is in some other countries.

Another key factor that is believed to prolong the process of seeking and winning retrials is the lack of legal provisions for the disclosure of evidence that is in the possession of investigation authorities. In some of the recent cases in which people convicted of murders won acquittals in retrials, evidence that was not presented to the court in initial trials proved crucial in finding them not guilty. Lawyers say that prosecutors remain unwilling to disclose evidence that might not help their cases, and whether courts urge prosecutors to disclose such evidence depends greatly on the individual judges presiding over the cases. Some of the evidence presented to Hakamada’s defense in the retrial plea were disclosed only at the urging of the Shizuoka District Court. Hakamada’s case should prompt discussions on whether uniform rules should be set on such procedures.