As I posted here, false confessions account for many, if not the majority of, wrongful convictions in Japan. Yet another case illustrates this: the Fukawa Case, in which two people were finally exonerated in 2011 for a 1967 robbery-murder.
The crime occured in August of 1967, in the town of Fukawa, Ibaraki Prefecture, about 40 miles outside of Tokyo. A carpenter was found dead in his home. His legs were tied with a towel and a shirt, a pair of underpants were stuffed in his mouth, and he was strangled. There were signs of struggle in the house, but it was unclear if anything was taken from the house, except for a white purse the victim supposedly used daily. 43 fingerprints were found but none of them connected to perpetrator(s). There was no physical evidence at the scene.
However, there were several eyewitness statements that two men (one tall man and another shorter man) were near the victim’s house on the evening that the victim was supposedly murdered. This statement lead the police to think there were two perpetrators.
Based on this information, the police investigated more than 180 men in the area, until they found the two men, Shoji Sakurai and Takao Sugiyama,who did not have an alibi on the date of the crime. In October of the same year, both of them were arrested on separate charges, and were interrogated.
Sakurai and Sugiyama were held in police jails (“Daiyo-Kangoku“), and interrogated for hours and days. After 5 days of interrogations, Sakurai confessed to the crime. Based on Sakurai’s confession, the police also forced Sugiyama to confess. They retracted their confession during the interrogation by the prosecutors, but the prosecutors sent them back to police jails, and after continuous interrogations that ensued, they finally gave in and confessed again.
The two contested their guilt at trial. The prosecutors had no direct evidence of their guilt. All they had were: their confessions made during interrogations by police and prosecutors (with the testimony of interrogators and the partial tape recordings of the interrogations which recorded only the part after they confessed to the crime), and testimonies of eyewitnesses who saw two men on the day of the crime.
There was no physical evidence, including the white purse which was never found. Their confessions during investigation changed repeatedly, Sakurai and Sugiyama’s confessions contradicted each other’s in important parts, they did not match the circumstances of the crime scene, and there was no information revealed in the confessions which unknown to investigators.
Nevertheless the trial court declared that their confessions made during investigation were reliable and sentenced them to life in 1970. The High Court as well as the Supreme Court denied the appeal. Their sentences were finalized in 1978.
In 1983, they filed a motion for retrial, but the motion was denied. After they got out of the prison on parole in 1996, they filed another motion in 2001 to the Mito District Court, Tsuchiura Branch.
This time, the petitioners presented more than 100 pieces of new evidence. Included were: expert opinion on the cause and death of victim which contradicted Sakurai and Sugiyama’s confessions (the victim was strangled with hands, not by underwear as was stated in the confessions), the result of a reconstruction experiment which stated that it was impossible for the perpetrator(s) to leave no fingerprint during the crime, Sakurai’s diary on the interrogation by police and prosecutors which showed evidence of coerced interrogation techniques, and other evidence of the unreliability of the confessions (read the summary of the new evidence written by attorneys here in Japanese).
The District Court ruled that the two should be granted a retrial. It emphasized that the confessions during investigation were unreliable on many grounds.
The prosecutors appealed the decision, but lost. The retrial began in 2010. After six rounds of hearings, Sakurai and Sugiyama won the retrial, and were finally declared not guilty on May 24, 2011. It took nearly 45 years to fully exonerate the two men. In March 2012, each received 130 million yen (about 1.6 million U.S. dollars) for compensation.
Sakurai and Sugiyama are now fighting together with others to win justice in other wrongful conviction cases.
*A website (in Japanese) dedicated to supporting the Fukawa case here. For all the important documents of the case, click here.
*”Shoji and Takao” is a documentary film about this case. Read about it here.
*Mr. Shoji Sakurai’s blog can be found here (in Japanese). Mr.Sakurai writes on his profile: “The truth always wins!”, this is what I came to believe after 44 years of my life wrongfully accused of a crime. These years were filled with good wills of people and happiness. In contrast, oh the ugliness of the police and the prosecutors. My fight continues to bring reforms to these organizations”.
*Mr. Takao Sugiyama’s blog can be found here (in Japanese). He writes: “To pass on the horror of wrongful conviction cases, I am trying to explain how I confessed and the problematic features of the Japanese criminal justice, police department, prosecution and the courts….. I am also advocating the legislation on full recording of the interrogations around the country. I try to do my best to explain in an understandable way.”
*Mr. Sakurai is now preparing to sue the State under the State Redress Act (news in Japanese here). Mr. Sakurai and his attorneys are trying to look at all the evidence that were never disclosed by the prosecution, and review the cause of illegal investigation and prosecution in the case.
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I just met Mr. Sakurai this evening. Saw the movie done by Ms. Ide on his story (and the story of Takao Sugiyama).
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