Forced confessions preclude fair trials
In a typical example of investigators' overreliance on confessions made by suspects in a criminal case, two men were forced to confess to a crime despite a lack of strong material evidence to support their declarations.
In light of the "innocent until proven guilty" principle for criminal trials, it was therefore inevitable that the Supreme Court chose to uphold a lower court decision ordering a retrial of a 1967 murder-robbery in Tonemachi, Ibaraki Prefecture.
The top court backed a Tokyo High Court decision that raised doubts about the guilty ruling handed to two men convicted of the charges. Forty-two years have elapsed since the incident, which is referred to as the "Fukawa case" after the area in which the crime took place. We hope the truth will quickly come to light during the retrial.
In the case, a 62-year-old carpenter who lived alone was murdered and robbed of about 100,000 yen. The two men, who lived in the same town, were indicted for murder and robbery after investigative authorities determined they had committed the crime to obtain cash for bicycle races.
However, no material evidence--such as fingerprints--was found. The authorities established their case based on the men's confessions and eyewitness accounts given by residents of the neighborhood. In 1978, sentences of life imprisonment were finalized after the top court rejected appeals lodged by the two men, who had pleaded not guilty. The men served their time in prison and were subsequently released on parole.
Inconsistencies pointed out
During court deliberations on their second request for a retrial, the high court flagged inconsistencies between how the carpenter's body was found and the accounts given by the two men about how the man was murdered. The court also noted significant differences in the various confessions given by the men regarding the amount of money that was stolen and from where it was taken.
The high court concluded that the men's confessions were unnatural and changed over time, likely because they did not actually carry out the acts they claimed.
Aggressive interrogations are a common factor in other cases in which false confessions have been obtained, such as the Ashikaga case, in which a man was convicted for murdering a 4-year-old girl in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, but released earlier this year based on DNA test results.
In the case of the murdered carpenter, new eyewitness reports have come to light. These reports say the men seen near the murder scene differed from the two convicted men in terms of both physical appearance and clothing. The credibility of two elements that supported the conviction--the men's confessions and eyewitness accounts--were thus considerably undermined.
The way prosecutors handled the case was problematic. Many pieces of evidence, such as the new eyewitness accounts--which were pivotal in the decision to hold a retrial--were disclosed for the first time during court deliberations on a petition for a retrial of the case.
It now appears almost certain that prosecutors in the original trial deliberately withheld pieces of evidence that could have hindered a guilty conviction.
Among the new evidence are audio tapes containing recordings of the men's interrogations. The high court acknowledged that the tapes likely had been tampered with. We suspect that parts of the tapes that would have proved inconvenient for the police and prosecutors were erased.
Prosecutors control evidence. Therefore, if they intentionally withhold evidence or falsify tapes, a fair trial cannot take place.
In lay judge trials, in which the number of pieces of evidence is narrowed down in advance to help expedite court deliberations, it is highly likely that arbitrary disclosure of evidence by prosecutors could result in erroneous judgments. This aspect of the system must not be forgotten.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 17, 2009)