A recent decision by the Supreme Court to grant a retrial to an 85-year-old man who did time for a 1985 murder in Kumamoto Prefecture marks yet another case for establishing clear rules on the disclosure of evidence possessed by investigation authorities. In recent years, there have been several retrials and subsequent acquittals of people convicted of murders based on evidence presented to courts for the first time in the process of seeking a retrial. However, there is currently no legal provision requiring prosecutors to submit all the evidence they hold when attorneys for convicted people seeking a retrial call for disclosure, and the matter is often left to the discretion of the judge handling each particular case. Legal clarity on the matter is long overdue.
Koki Miyata was sentenced to 13 years in prison for the murder of a man in what is now the city of Uki, Kumamoto Prefecture, in 1985 — a decision that was finalized by the Supreme Court in 1990. Miyata confessed to the crime during the police investigation but pleaded not guilty throughout the court proceedings. He was provisionally released in 1999 after spending time behind bars, and a retrial plea filed by his lawyer, who also served as his guardian since Miyata began suffering from senile dementia, was accepted by the Kumamoto District Court in 2016 and endorsed by the Supreme Court earlier this month.
In the absence of hard evidence linking him to the murder, Miyata’s confession held the key to his guilty verdict. But during the proceedings for seeking the retrial, pieces of cloth found by his lawyers among the evidence that prosecutors had held cast serious doubts over the credibility of his confession — that he had burned the cloth after using it to wrap around his murder weapon.
In the retrial to be held at the Kumamoto court, Miyata is expected to be acquitted of the crime he was convicted of 33 years after it took place. The crucial evidence was disclosed by prosecutors upon the request of Miyata’s lawyers. But this kind of disclosure is currently not guaranteed under the law.
A hitherto undisclosed piece of evidence also played a role in reopening the case of Hiromu Sakahara, whose retrial over a 1984 murder in Shiga Prefecture was decided in July by the Otsu District Court. A photo negative taken during Sakahara’s interrogation, which was disclosed by prosecutors for the first time in the proceedings over his retrial plea, threw the police investigation into the case into question.
The court eventually determined that Sakahara — who died in prison in 2011 while he was serving a life term — was forced into wrongly confessing to the crime under violence and threats by the police investigators, which, along with other doubts cast over his conviction, led to the decision to hold a retrial. It is believed to be the first retrial granted in the postwar period to a deceased prisoner convicted of a serious crime like murder.
Many past cases of wrongful charges and convictions have been attributed to overreliance on confessions made during interrogations. Criminal justice reforms in recent years have pushed for more emphasis on objective evidence in building criminal cases. A rule introduced after the lay judge system was launched in 2009 mandates that prosecutors need to disclose evidence requested by the defense side in the pre-trial proceedings. Prosecutors are now also required to show the defense council a list of evidence they hold concerning the case at hand.
Still, there are no such legal provisions for disclosure of evidence in the proceedings for retrial pleas — the lack of which is often blamed as a reason that such proceedings take so long in this country. The Justice Ministry and prosecution authorities remain cautious toward demands that clear rules be established for disclosure of evidence in the process of seeking retrials.
As it is, the scope of disclosure of evidence that prosecutors hold in such proceedings depends on the decision of the judges in charge — which can vary widely. Meanwhile, suspicions persist that prosecutors present to court only the evidence that supports their case and withhold that which may prove inconvenient to them. Such suspicions are detrimental to public trust in the criminal justice system. It is time that a clear and equitable system for disclosure of evidence in court is established.