From Fernando Bermudez:
I Cannot Take Off My Straw Sandals
By Fernando Bermudez
Strong Hugs. Wiped tears. Repeated reassurances. Through the eyes of my children, my emotional return from Japan reflected more accomplishment than exhaustion after lecturing in 9 Japanese cities from Tokyo to Okayama throughout October 2013. In sharing my 18-year wrongful incarceration story in New York until exonerated in 2009 (due to mistaken eyewitness identifications and police and prosecutorial misconduct), my lectures at Japanese bar associations and universities urged Japan to abolish its death penalty and reduce relying on confessions to secure Japan’s 99% conviction rate, which have caused several wrongful convictions and exonerations in Japan due to false confessions.
The Rev. Ryuji Furukawa inspired my trip to Japan when we met while lecturing throughout Italy and he shared his quest for justice regarding a 1947 criminal case in Fukuoka, Japan. Today, because witnesses in that case have died and only family members can petition for new trials in Japan, supporters of the Fukuoka incident seek to ease evidence requirements for new trials for innocent prisoners in Japan. Both Rev. Ryuji Furukawa and his sister, Syuriji, have championed these efforts since they were children on behalf of their father, the late Rev. Tairyu Furukawa. Thier late father’s 15-year quest to exonerate Mr. Takeo Nishi and abolish Japan’s death penalty still attracts support after Mr. Nishi was arrested in 1947, and then suddenly executed 28 years later despite exonerating evidence. Here, the late Mr. Kenjiro Ishii admitted murdering a Chinese national in self-defense for which both he and Mr. Nishi were sentenced to death. However, even before his death sentence was commuted and he was released after 42 years in prison to join the Furukawa’s campaign, Mr. Ishii has always insisted that Mr. Nishi was completely innocent with supporting evidence beyond that.
By joining this campaign to urge post-humous justice for Mr. Nishii after Japan’s minister of justice broke his promise to issue a new criminal justice bill for Mr. Nishi called an “Exceptional Ordinance for Retrial”, my lectures explained how mistaken eyewitness identifications have caused most wrongful convictions in America with about 2,000 exonerations since 1989, including 143 death row and 311 DNA-based exonerations. I mentioned that experts estimate that 2-5% of all 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in America may be innocent, and that Japan is certainly not immune to wrongful convictions. In fact, unlike America, I added, most wrongful convictions in Japan occur through false confessions because people arrested in Japan can be interogated for 23 days without a lawyer or Miranda rights or recorded interrogations for criminal trials not requiring unanimous jury verdicts. This is why, I urged, that an Exceptional Ordinance for a Retrail for newly discovered evidence could at least help innocent prisoners in Japan have another day in court; and before each lecture I would wear straw sandals and hat with Fukuoka Incident supporters in street campaigns to obtain petition signatures to help pass this bill.
Amid learning Japanese and carrying heavy luggage from one bullet train to another with sweaty rail pass in hand, alleviated by natural hot springs called “onsen,” making new Japanese friends expanded the pleasure of working for greater justice in Japan. The Japanese invented Karaoke and their love for it was as strong as wasabi each time we toasted, “Kampai!” Our successful days sometimes began with chants waking me up inside a Shinto temple, or ended with boatrides in Tokyo bay with individualized Hibachi stoves that left me smiling more than the people I approached wearing a Godzilla mask.
However, what fed me besides sushi, miso soup and even horsemeat were important questions and reactions from Japanese university students. One female student cried in her pledge to become a lawyer as I mentioned that my arrest occurred on August 6, 1991, exactly 46 years after Hiroshima was bombed. And yet, I explained, being in Japan with students and people concerned about Japan’s future will allow us to work together again and wear more straw sandals that we should not take off until greater justice for Japan is achieved. Justice against false confessions to help end the death penalty worldwide. Justice against custom and tradition that choke a country from progressing when it has has advanced in other ways.
When I returned home to hug my children, I saw this hope in their eyes, knowing that there’d be another justice campaign somewhere, somehow. And that their father and mother would work again toward a cause greater than their pain.