The acquittal of a 85-year-old man last month in the retrial of a 1985 murder in Kumamoto Prefecture is the latest in a series of court rulings in recent years that have reopened cases or reversed convictions of people accused of murder based mainly on their confessions in the absence of hard evidence linking them to the crime. To prevent more false charges or convictions, the parties involved in criminal investigations and the judiciary need to identify what can be learned from the process that led to a guilty ruling on Koki Miyata — who waited 34 years before he was acquitted.
Miyata was arrested over the January 1985 murder of a 59-year-old acquaintance at the victim’s home in what then was the town of Matsubase in Kumamoto. He started to plead not guilty halfway through the district court trial, which nonetheless sentenced him to 13 years in prison, judging that his earlier confession to investigators was credible enough. The ruling was finalized by the Supreme Court in 1990 and Miyata was given a provisional release in 1999. Since Miyata suffered from senile dementia, his guardian filed a retrial plea in 2012, which was granted four years later. Now bedridden in a nursing home in Kumamoto, Miyata was officially acquitted in the retrial that quickly wrapped up last month.
The key that reopened his case and acquitted him in the retrial was a piece of evidence that his defense team found in the possession of prosecutors — but had never been submitted to the court in his initial trial. It was a part of Miyata’s shirt — which, according to his confession to the investigators, he burned after wrapping the handle of a knife used to fatally stab the victim. The defense team submitted the piece of clothing, along with a forensic analysis stating that the shape of the knife identified as the murder weapon did not match the victim’s wound — in seeking the retrial. In 2016, the Kumamoto District Court decided to reopen the trial, judging that given the new evidence, core parts of his confession contradicted the objective facts of the murder.
In the retrial at the same district court, the prosecutors did not seek a sentence on the murder charge against Miyata and simply requested “an appropriate decision” by the court. In handing down the acquittal, the court rejected the credibility of Miyata’s confession — on which the past trial relied to convict him — and concluded that given his advanced age and ailing health, “it is most appropriate to hand down a ruling as promptly as possible.” It may be deemed that the court put priority on speedy relief for Miyata, but in the process the examination of evidence put before the court was kept to a minimum. As a result, it was never examined how the police and prosecutors overlooked the piece of his shirt — or whether, as the defense team charged, they covered up the crucial evidence that would have cleared him — or why Miyata gave the false confession to interrogators.
Miyata’s acquittal once again highlighted the risk of charging or convicting people of crimes solely on the strength of their confessions — as well as the importance of disclosure of evidence in court, including in the process of seeking retrials. Evidence that does not suit the case established by investigators is not submitted to the court, although it may include items that point to the innocence of the accused. Disclosure of evidence in investigators’ possession became a topic of discussion when a special panel of the Legislative Council, an advisory body to the justice minister, discussed reform of criminal investigation and trials — along with the video-recording of the interrogation process to ensure its transparency, which becomes mandatory this year in the interrogation of suspects in cases that are subject to lay judge trials as well as in criminal probes initiated by prosecutors.
The panel made it mandatory for prosecutors to disclose a list of all evidence in their possession. However, discussion on the rules of evidence disclosure in the court deliberations on retrial pleas has since been shelved. The decision to disclose specific pieces of evidence rests with the prosecutors, and lawyers for those seeking the retrial can only hope that the judges dealing with their case will take the initiative to urge prosecutors to present that evidence. It was only fortunate that in Miyata’s case, the crucial piece of evidence that cast doubt on the credibility of his confession was disclosed before the retrial plea was filed. A uniform rule should be established for disclosure of evidence in the process seeking a retrial as a lack of evidence is often blamed as the reason that the process leading to a retrial often takes too long.
It is not enough to overturn a wrongful conviction of innocent persons. The process that result in falsely convicting them of crimes they did not commit must be scrutinized — possibly through a third-party oversight — to identify what mistakes had been made in the investigation and the trial process, so that the same mistakes would not be repeated.