Statement on Acquittal in the Retrial of the Higashi-Sumiyoshi Case
Today, the third criminal section of the Osaka District Court acquitted Ms. Keiko Aoki and Mr. Tatsuhiro Boku in a retrial of the case known as the Higashi-Sumiyoshi case.
This case is about a house-fire which took place on July 22, 1995, in Higashi-Sumiyoshi Ward, Osaka City, killing Ms. Aoki’s eldest daughter who resided in the house and was a sixth grade elementary school student at the time. The two were arrested on September 10, 1995, on suspicion of having committed arson and murder in a bid to collect on a life insurance policy, and were later sentenced to life in prison in the final ruling. They were convicted based on a false accusation and subsequently deprived of their liberty for over 20 years. The JFBA praises Ms. Aoki and Mr. Boku’s struggle to insist on their innocence for such a long period of time, and sincerely respects the efforts made by their families, supporters and the defense counsels who assisted the couple.
Today’s ruling admitted that there was a reasonable likelihood, going beyond an abstract or unrealistic idea, that the fire could have been caused by spontaneous combustion. In light of new pieces of evidence regarding the situation surrounding the interrogation that were also presented in the procedure for the retrial petitions (the instance of an immediate appeal), the court acknowledged with regard to the confessions of the accused two persons that the interrogators told them things that were contrary to the objective facts and placed excessive mental pressure on them during the interrogations which caused the two of them to be coerced into making false confessions. Denying that their confessions were made voluntarily or under circumstances that afforded special credibility, the court did not admit as evidence any of the record of confessions adopted in the court of last instance. Moreover, it also concluded that the interrogators had given false testimony and statements regarding the situation surrounding the interrogation. The JFBA welcomes the court’s recognition that the interrogation conducted in this case was illegal as well as its clear indication that the ruling of last instance was a miscarriage of justice.
However, the court of last instance already pointed out certain matters, including the facts that: there were problems with how the couple was interrogated; their confessions were lacking in credibility due to questionable feasibility and many unrealistic points in terms of their content; and that the probability of spontaneous ignition could not be completely denied. Evidence later presented by the defense counsels during the procedure for the retrial merely solidified these doubts. This indicates that the questions raised by the defense counsels developed a “reasonable doubt”, and that the court of last instance should have acquitted the two wrongly accused. The court which rendered the rulings thus bears a grave responsibility.
Although finding it difficult to prove the conviction of the couple beyond a reasonable doubt and giving up on insisting on it in the retrial, the prosecutors continuously persisted with their same claims instead of calling for an acquittal; they stated that no illegality existed in the interrogation of the couple, and posed questions as to the possibility of spontaneous ignition. The prosecutors should be severely criticized for this attitude that is significantly unsuitable for their role in representing the public interest.
The present case provides a clear and prominent demonstration of the wide array of problems pointed out in past cases involving false accusations, such as forced confessions conducted under the substitute detention system (daiyo kangoku), unreasonable limitations on meetings with attorneys and other advisors, disregard of scientific knowledge, overreliance on confessions and concealment of evidence by the prosecution. This also provides clear evidence of the structural problems intrinsic in Japan’s criminal justice system. The JFBA is determined to dedicate its utmost efforts to overcoming such problems with a view to realizing suitable reforms of the structures which need to be in place to prevent false convictions.
August 10, 2016
Japan Federation of Bar Associations