Making video recordings of interrogations in criminal cases has been introduced as a measure to prevent police and prosecution investigators from forcing or leading suspects into making false confessions, which has been blamed for many cases in which suspects were charged with or convicted of crimes they did not commit. However, a recent Tokyo High Court ruling on a 2005 murder case highlighted the risk involved in showing such recordings in courtrooms — by warning against the possibility that the impression left by the video could influence the judges’ decision on the culpability of the accused.

In the December 2005 murder of a 7-year-old girl in Imaichi (now part of the city of Nikko) in Tochigi Prefecture, prosecutors lacked material evidence that directly tied the accused, Takuya Katsumata, 36, to the crime. Seven years after the murder, Katsumata, who had been under arrest on a separate case, confessed to killing the girl during police interrogation but later reversed himself and pleaded not guilty in court. His lawyers said he had been led by interrogators to make a false confession.

During the lay judge trial at the Utsunomiya District Court, a key issue was the credibility of Katsumata’s confession. Prosecutors showed the court more than seven hours of video recordings of his interrogation. In 2016, the district court sentenced him to life, ruling that while circumstantial evidence alone was not sufficient to convict him of the murder, his confession was trustworthy enough given his attitude during the interrogation — as shown in the video. Katsumata appealed the ruling.

Recording interrogations is intended to make the process transparent; the video can be examined later to determine whether the suspect’s statements were made to interrogators voluntarily. In view of a series of cases in which suspects were wrongfully charged or convicted on the basis of confessions they had been coerced or led by interrogators to make, the measure has been introduced as part of reforms to criminal investigations and trial procedures. By next June, it will become mandatory for police and prosecutors to make video recordings of their interrogations in criminal cases subject to lay judge trials.

Police and prosecution authorities were initially reluctant, saying that recording interrogations would make it harder for them to get suspects to speak up. After it became inevitable that the practice would become mandatory, the Supreme Public Prosecutor’s Office told prosecution organizations nationwide to actively use the video recordings not just as evidence of the voluntary nature of the confession but also as a tool to prove the culpability of the accused. Even before the practice becomes mandatory, prosecutors are recording interrogations and submitting the videos to courts as evidence with increasing frequency.

Concern has been raised, however, that the impression left by the visual images shown in the courtroom could have undue influence on judges, either lay or professional, regarding the credibility of confessions and whether defendants had committed the crimes they’re accused of.

In its ruling last month on the 2005 murder case, the Tokyo High Court pointed to that very concern by rejecting the district court decision. It determined that the earlier ruling was illegal in that the court directly judged the credibility of Katsumata’s confession on the basis of his attitude toward interrogators as shown in the video — even though the video was adopted only as supplementary evidence to help the judges’ decision. The high court underlined the danger of an “intuitive judgement based on impression” left by the video images, and criticized the district court ruling for not reviewing the possibility that the accused might have been making things up in his statement. At the same time, the high court found Katsumata guilty of killing the girl — citing circumstantial evidence — and upheld the life term.

By citing the risk of the interrogation video over-influencing the judges’ decisions, the high court called for prioritizing objective evidence in criminal investigations and in trials. Judgments on the credibility of confessions need to be made with cool-headed consideration that “maintains a distance” from the confession itself and examines its “consistency with objective facts.” The high court decision should serve as a reminder that the criminal investigation and trial reforms were intended to end the excessive reliance on confessions.

The case also highlights the lack of rules on how interrogation videos should be treated as evidence, including how they should be shown in the courtroom. In the 2005 murder case, all of Katsumata’s interrogation was video-recorded after he was served the murder warrant, but not while he was being questioned by police on a voluntary basis. His lawyers claimed that inappropriate interrogation techniques while the process was not being video-recorded influenced him to make a false confession — a claim that was rejected in the high court ruling.

There seem to be a great many questions that need to be sorted out on the issue.

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