On Thursday, 78-year-old Iwao Hakamada was released from a Tokyo prison after DNA testing excluded him as the source of blood left on key evidence in a 1960s murder of a four-member family. He had served nearly 50 years on death row. Activists and key people involved in the case, including the judge who originally sentenced Hakamada to death, say that the case was deeply flawed from the start and that the conviction was based largely on a coerced false confession and other evidence that may have been fabricated by the police.
New York Times
reported on Thursday that in 1966, the owner of a miso-making business and his family were murdered in their home in Tokyo. Their house was burglarized and set on fire; all four bodies were badly burned. A month after the crime, Hakamada, a then-employee at the miso company, was arrested and made to endure a more than 20-day long police interrogation in which he was violently beaten, deprived of sleep and forced to suffer indecent living conditions. At the end of the interrogation, Hakamada confessed to committing the murders, but retracted his statement soon after.
At trial, prosecutors said that a pair of blood stained pants that had been found in a tank of miso paste following the murders belonged to Hakamada and served as evidence of his guilt. Hakamada tried on the pants in court, but they didn’t fit; the pants were too small to be his. Despite the physical evidence not supporting the prosecution’s story, Hakamada was convicted and sentenced to death based on his confession.
Critics of Japan’s criminal justice system say that the injustice of Hakamada’s case is a byproduct of the country’s flawed interrogation practices. David T. Johnson, a professor at the University of Hawaii and an author of books on criminal justice in Japan, told the
New York Times
, “When something goes wrong in Japanese criminal justice, it tends to happen in the interrogation room.” Japan’s current conviction rate is almost 100 percent, a rate that, according to critics, prosecutors can maintain given that the country’s criminal justice system relies heavily on coerced confessions as opposed to hard evidence.
Over the past several years, Japan has begun to usher in reforms to its criminal justice system. In 2009, the country introduced a jury system for most criminal cases. But, critics and activists say Hakamada’s case speaks to the need for more rapid change. David T. Johnson told the
, “Things are turning in the Japanese criminal justice system. But Japan is traveling that road very slowly.”
In Thursday’s announcement to release Hakamada, Hiroaki Murayama — the presiding judge— said, “the possibility of [Hakamada’s] innocence has become clear to a respectable degree, and it is unbearably unjust to prolong the defendant’s detention any further.”
Described as bewildered as he exited the prison doors, Hakamada, according to this family, shows signs of having a poor mental state. They fear that the near half century of wrongful imprisonment took an inevitable toll on his wellbeing. Over the years, they say that his letters to the family devolved into little more than gibberish. When his lawyers told him that he was finally being released from prison on Thursday, he said, “You lie. I’m finished.”
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