Tokyo’s Supreme Court on Monday ordered a new trial for an 87-year-old former professional boxer who has been on death row for more than five decades following a murder conviction his lawyers say was based on a coerced confession and trumped-up evidence.
The Tokyo Supreme Court said Iwao Hakamada, the world’s longest-serving death row inmate, deserves a new trial over the possibility that key evidence leading to his conviction could have been fabricated by investigators, Japan’s bar association said in a statement.
Hakamada has been out of prison but still not acquitted since 2014, when the Shizuoka District Court in central Japan stayed his execution and ordered a retrial and his release. That ruling was overturned by the Tokyo Supreme Court until the Supreme Court ordered the court to reconsider in 2020.
His lawyers rushed out of the courtroom flashing banners reading “Retrial”.
“I waited 57 years for this day and it has come,” said Hakamada’s sister Hideko, 90, who has campaigned tirelessly on her brother’s behalf. “Finally a weight has been lifted from my shoulders.”
Hakamada was convicted of murder in the 1966 murder of a company executive and three of his relatives, and setting fire to their home in central Japan where he was a live-in employee. Two years later he was sentenced to death. He initially denied the allegations and then confessed, later saying he was forced to do so due to violent police interrogation.
Hakamada was not executed due to lengthy appeals and the retrial. It took 27 years for the Supreme Court to reject his first appeal for a new trial. He appealed for a second time in 2008 and the court finally ruled in his favor on Thursday.
The point of contention was five pieces of blood-stained clothing that investigators say Hakamada wore during the crime and hid in a tank of fermented soybean paste, or miso, found more than a year after his arrest.
The Tokyo Supreme Court decision on Monday acknowledged scientific experiments that clothes soaked in miso for more than a year become too dark to see bloodstains, saying there is a possibility of fabrication, most likely by researchers.
Defense attorneys and previous retrial decisions said the blood samples did not match Hakamada’s DNA, and that the pants prosecutors submitted as evidence were too small for Hakamada and did not fit when he tried them on.
National broadcaster NHK said the presiding judge, Fumio Daizen, questioned the credibility of the clothes as evidence.
“There is no evidence other than the clothing that could determine that Hakamada was the perpetrator, so it is clear that there is reasonable doubt,” NHK quoted him as saying.
Hakamada has been serving his sentence at home since his release in 2014, because his weak health and age meant he had little chance of escaping.
Japan and the United States are the only two countries in the group of seven developed countries to retain the death penalty. A Japanese government survey found that an overwhelming majority supported public executions.
Executions are carried out in secret in Japan and prisoners are not informed of their fate until the morning of their hanging. Since 2007, Japan has begun releasing the names of those executed and some details of their crimes, but disclosures are still limited.
The death penalty still enjoys broad public support and is rarely discussed.
Supporters say nearly 50 years of detention, mostly in solitary confinement with the ever-present threat of execution, took a heavy toll on Hakamada’s mental health.
He told AFP in 2018 that he felt like he was “fighting a fight every day”.
His sister Hideko later told a press conference on Monday that she does not talk to him about the trials.
“I will just tell him to rest easy because we got a good result,” she said. “Now I just have to make sure I can see the new trial begin.”
However, the process for a new trial can take years if a special appeal is filed, and lawyers have protested against this system.
Japan’s Federation of Bar Associations welcomed Monday’s ruling, but said in a statement that it “urges prosecutors to quickly start the new trial without making a special appeal to the Supreme Court.”
“We cannot afford any further delay to cure Mr. Hakamada, who has reached the age of 87 and has mental and physical problems after 47 years of physical disability,” said Motoji Kobayashi, head of the association.
Human rights organization Amnesty International also welcomed the decision.
“This ruling provides a long overdue opportunity to bring justice to Hakamada Iwao, who has been sentenced to death for more than half a century despite the blatant unfairness of the trial in which he was sentenced,” said Hideaki Nakagawa, Amnesty International Executive Director. Japan. “Now that the Tokyo Supreme Court has recognized Hakamada’s right to a fair trial that was denied to him more than 50 years ago, it is imperative that prosecutors allow it.
AFP contributed to this report.