Prosecutors Risk Loss of Public Trust by Prolonging Elderly Man’s Ordeal

It has already been more than 40 years since the defendant first petitioned for a retrial. The points of contention for the trial have all been addressed, and the retrial must proceed swiftly.

Prosecutors have said that, in a retrial, they will again prove the guilt of Iwao Hakamata, who was granted a retrial after his death sentence was finalized for the 1966 murder and robbery of a family of four in Shizuoka Prefecture.

A retrial can be held after an earlier trial’s ruling has been finalized if new evidence is found to exonerate the defendant. Since the end of World War II, there have been nine retrials of defendants whose sentences of death or life imprisonment had previously been finalized. All nine cases ultimately resulted in acquittal.

Hakamata is also highly likely to be acquitted at his retrial. Despite this, further delay of the trial became inevitable. It is quite justifiable that his defense team has been strongly critical of the prosecution’s handling of the case.

The focus of the trial has been narrowed down to whether a shirt and other clothing found in a vat at a miso factory near the crime scene about one year after the incident belonged to Hakamata. The clothing had red bloodstains. When the death sentence was finalized, the ruling stated that the clothing was worn by Hakamata at the time of the crime.

In March this year, however, in the proceedings for a request for a retrial over the case, the Tokyo High Court acknowledged, based on the results of experiments and other data, that the reddish color of the bloodstains would have disappeared if the clothing was immersed in miso for more than one year. The court also pointed out the possibility that the clothing evidence may have been fabricated by investigative authorities, and decided to begin a retrial. Prosecutors abandoned filing a special appeal with the Supreme Court against the high court decision.

However, prosecutors said that in the retrial, they will prepare new experts’ written opinions to prove that it is not unnatural for the reddish color of bloodstains to remain. But, the points of contention are the same as before, and all of the available evidence had been fully examined in the past trial. Is it really possible for prosecutors to make a convincing argument?

The fact that the high court even referred to “fabrication of evidence” by investigative authorities is said to have been met with strong opposition from within the prosecution. It is the responsibility of prosecutors to get to the bottom of an incident, and they are not prohibited from arguing for a defendant’s guilt at a retrial. It makes sense that if there is evidence, they will fully prove the case.

However, if prosecutors are fixated on saving face for the prosecution as a whole and they repeatedly insist that the investigation was justified in order to wipe out a disgrace, they will not be able to gain the public’s understanding.

The first request for a retrial was filed in 1981. The Shizuoka District Court granted the second request and issued a decision in 2014 to begin a retrial. Hakamata’s execution was suspended and he was released. However, requests for a retrial were granted and overturned as prosecutors have supported his conviction and his defense team has asserted his innocence.

Hakamata is now 87 years old. The court, prosecutors and the defense team have a responsibility to narrow down the evidence and proceed with the retrial swiftly. Rehashing past hearings is unacceptable.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, July 13, 2023)