In the Land of the Rising Sun
By Fernando Bermudez
In 2009, after having served more than 18 years in a New York prison for a murder he did not commit, Fernando Bermudez was exonerated. This week marks his four-year anniversary as a free man.
Today, Bermudez is a public speaker and advocate for criminal justice reform. He travels internationally, telling his story and calling on governments to implement better laws to prevent new wrongful convictions.
To reflect upon and celebrate his new life, Bermudez wrote this post for the Innocence Blog about his recent lecturing tour in Japan.
“Exonerated?” asked an immigration official, peering at me, wearing a creepy surgical mask. “E-X-O-N-E-R-A-T-E-D,” I responded. “Proven innocent,” I repeated, anxious and alone, two hours after being denied entry into Japan because I had checked a box indicating that I had been arrested before.
Darn; my tendency to be a “truth stick” had got me detained. It’s a common symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. I over explain myself and say “yes, sir” and “no, ma’am” to anyone wearing a uniform, even teenagers working at fast food restaurants. I suspect it’s the residual effect of being forced to respect authority during my more than 18 years in New York prisons, until I was exonerated in 2009. Or maybe it’s because I had told the truth in 1991 — that I was innocent of murder — but was convicted anyway. Judging by the fact that a fellow exoneree who was meeting me in Japan had also been detained twice for admitting his arrest, I wonder if this “truth stick” symptom is just a part of life for people who have been wrongfully convicted. Fortunately, my situation was resolved; sweet relief came when I was finally met by welcoming friends at Narita airport.
I had been invited to Japan to share my wrongful conviction story at a number of universities, bar associations and civic centers. My mission for my trip was to advocate for criminal justice reform in Japan and to promote abolishing the country’s death penalty. Also, I wanted to work with various institutions to establish an Innocence Project there.
Japan is certainly not immune to wrongful convictions or serious problems within its criminal justice system. It’s legal there to conduct 23-day-long interrogations. Suspects are interrogated without the right to counsel and interrogations are not recorded. It isn’t surprising, then, that most wrongful convictions in Japan are the result of false confessions.
In the nine cities where I presented, from Tokyo to Kobe, I addressed Japan’s 99 percent conviction rate. I also discussed how four people, who had been wrongfully convicted based on false confessions, had been exonerated from death row since the “Fukuoka incident,” in which an innocent man — Takeo Nishii — was executed in 1975, despite the real perpetrator — Kenjiro Ishii — declaring that Mr. Nishii was completely innocent.
Mr. Nishii’s case had been introduced to me by the Rev. Ryuji Furukawa, who I’d met while lecturing in Italy. He had invited me to Japan to present on improving Japanese laws to prevent another Fukuoka incident. While on my Japanese tour, I reunited with Rev. Furukawa. We campaigned in the streets and sought petition signatures to grant Mr. Nishii posthumous exoneration after Japan’s minister of justice broke his promise to enact a bill that would clear Mr. Nishii. We also urged Japanese legislators to establish newly discovered evidence standards for all innocent prisoners in Japan.
As my 14-day mission in Japan ended, I felt that I had accomplished something important. People said that my lectures had improved their lives. I am certainly better for it, for in the “Land of the Rising Sun” I have new and generous friends who care about Japan’s future and understand my passion for human rights.
Japan isn’t the last country where I will scatter seeds for justice. Public speaking is how I have chosen to live my life as an exoneree. My wife has even joined me on my mission; she speaks about the effects of wrongful convictions on families.
I have a message to share: love, justice and freedom are some of the greatest gifts we can receive. As I celebrate my fourth year of freedom this November, I will continue to speak this truth.
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