Retrial of Hakamata: Speedy Proceedings, Early Verdict Should Be Given Highest Importance

The 87-year-old defendant was deemed unfit to appear in court due to communication difficulties engendered by his long detention. His trial must not be prolonged.

The Shizuoka District Court has begun the retrial of Iwao Hakamata, whose death sentence was previously finalized over the 1966 murder and robbery of a family of four in Shizuoka Prefecture. Retrials are held in cases when sufficient evidence that is likely to prove the defendant’s innocence is newly found.

Hakamata has been recognized as mentally incompetent and exempted from attending the retrial. His sister, Hideko, entered a plea on his behalf, asking for his acquittal. “Please grant Iwao true freedom,” she said. However, prosecutors reiterated their contention that Hakamata committed the crime.

With both the prosecutors and the defense team having submitted numerous pieces of evidence, the retrial is likely to have more than a dozen hearings. The retrial is scheduled to end in March next year, but it is believed that it could be delayed.

Fifty-seven years have passed since the incident occurred. It is unacceptable to protract the trial further. Both sides need to narrow down the main points in presenting evidence and expedite proceedings.

The focus of the retrial will be on whether a shirt and other articles of clothing — found in a tank at a miso factory near the crime scene about a year after the incident — were worn by Hakamata while committing the crime. Reddish bloodstains remained on the clothing, and the district court, which first sentenced him to death, found that the garments had been worn by Hakamata at the time of the incident.

On the other hand, the Tokyo High Court, which granted a retrial to Hakamata, recognized based on the results of experiments and other evidence that the reddish color of bloodstains would likely have disappeared if such fabric had been immersed in miso for more than a year. The court also stated that the claimed state of the clothing was unnatural and could have been fabricated by investigative authorities.

The prosecutors said that at the retrial, they would attempt to prove otherwise regarding the reddish color of the bloodstains based on expert testimony and other evidence. However, this point of contention has been examined carefully in Hakamata’s past trial hearings. To avoid rehashing the past, it is essential for the prosecutors to present clear evidence that would establish his guilt.

It must be said that the trial’s path to reach this point has been extremely long.

Hakamata filed a request for a retrial in 1981. The Shizuoka District Court granted a retrial in 2014. As a result, his execution was suspended and he was released.

Yet even after that, judicial proceedings to decide whether to start the retrial continued for nine more years as court decisions made several turns. It should be said that Hakamata has been tormented by the judiciary with his fate on the brink of the death penalty.

It has become apparent that the current retrial system should be reviewed. Once a decision is made to open a retrial, should the case immediately be retried to allow the prosecution and defense sides to exhaust their arguments in open court? A situation must not be repeated in which a trial is allowed to be dragged out for more than half a century.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Oct. 28, 2023)