A 92-year-old woman’s bid for a retrial over a 1979 murder in Osaki, Kagoshima Prefecture, for which she was convicted and spent 10 years in prison, was quashed once again as the Supreme Court last week overturned decisions by lower courts to reopen the case. The Supreme Court’s rejection of the retrial plea by Ayako Haraguchi, which had been approved three times by lower courts, raises questions of whether it is consistent with the top court’s past decision that a retrial can be granted when reasonable doubt emerges over a conviction.

Haraguchi was arrested along with three others, including her husband, for allegedly colluding to strangle her brother-in-law. While Haraguchi consistently denied the charges throughout the investigations and in court, the three others confessed to killing him and dumping his body. A 10-year prison term for Haraguchi in 1980 was finalized by the Supreme Court a year later. After serving the sentence, she filed a plea for a retrial in 1995. But while the Kagoshima District Court granted her a retrial in 2002, the decision was overturned by the Miyazaki branch of the Fukuoka High Court in 2004. After the second attempt failed, she filed a third retrial plea in 2015, and the district court and the high court branch decided to reopen the trial. The prosecutors then appealed to the Supreme Court.

In the absence of hard evidence linking Haraguchi to the victim’s death, the focus of the proceedings examining the retrial plea was the credibility of confessions and testimonies of her husband and the two other men — who all had intellectual disabilities — and the testimony of her sister-in-law that Haraguchi broached the idea of killing the victim with her husband.

Haraguchi’s lawyers submitted a forensic scientist’s analysis of photos taken during the autopsy of the victim’s body — which had been found in a cowshed compost pit in a decayed condition — that pointed to the possibility that he had in fact died of shock from an injury he had sustained in a bicycle accident days before his body was found. Also presented to the court was a psychological analysis of the sister-in-law’s testimony that noted she might have falsely implicated Haraguchi. The high court granted a retrial to Haraguchi last year on the strength of the forensic analysis, while the district court adopted the psychological analysis as a key factor in its 2017 decision to reopen the trial.

The top court determined that both pieces of evidence submitted by the defense were not strong enough to cast doubt on the guilty verdict. The court said the forensic analysis, made by reviewing the autopsy photos and information from other documents without actually seeing the body, could not conclusively identify the cause of death. It also dismissed the significance of the psychological analysis of the sister-in-law’s testimony. Meanwhile, the court determined that the confessions and accounts of the three other defendants — which reportedly changed unnaturally in the course of interrogations — were mutually supportive and credible enough.

In recent years, scientific analysis based on the latest technology of evidence in decades-old criminal cases has paved the way for several retrials and acquittals of the defendants. This time, the Supreme Court rejected the retrial plea based on a strict assessment of the new evidence. It was the first time the court has overturned a retrial decision made by both district and high courts.

Normally the Supreme Court is believed to hold deliberations only when violations of constitutional rules or deviations from judicial precedents are suspected, and it is deemed rare for the top court to hand down a judgment based on the factual details of a case. Given that the district and the high courts decided to reopen Haraguchi’s case based on their doubts about her conviction, questions have been raised as to whether the top court is deviating from its own landmark 1975 judgment that the principle of the benefit of the doubt going to the defendant should apply to retrial pleas. The so-called Shiratori decision by the Supreme Court, involving a case concerning the 1952 murder of police inspector Kazuo Shiratori, for which a retrial was sought, stated that a certain level of reasonable doubt about a ruling that convicted the accused justifies a retrial — and paved the way for the retrials of several people who were found to have been wrongly charged and convicted.

Haraguchi’s case also highlighted a problem that often prolongs the process of seeking retrial — a lack of rules on the disclosure of evidence in the possession of prosecutors. It was only in her third bid for retrial — more than 30 years after the murder — that the prosecutors disclosed, at the strong urging by the district court, the film negatives of the photos taken during the victim’s autopsy. The case should prompt more discussions on reforming the system for seeking retrials.

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