Thursday, June 18, 2009

"Controversial child organ transplant bill passes Lower House

"A controversial bill to enable organ transplants from children under 15 years old passed the House of Representatives Thursday.

"The plenary session of the Lower House approved a revision to the Law on Organ Transplantation aimed at paving the way for organ transplants among children by abolishing the age limit for organ donors.

"The vote showed a majority of lawmakers were in support of expanding the opportunities for organ donors, with 263 supporting the bill and 167 against. Japan has seen only 81 cases of organ transplants from brain-dead donors over the past 11 1/2 years since the enactment of the current law.

"However, since a separate bill is likely to be submitted to the House of Councillors, and with the dissolution of the Lower House looming, it remains uncertain if the bill will be passed into law during the current Diet session.

"Under the current law, organ transplants from brain-dead children under age 15 are forbidden, and children in need of organs appropriate to their size have to travel overseas to undergo transplant surgery.

"Since the World Health Organization (WHO) is poised to set out a policy calling on countries to perform more transplants domestically, it is likely that Japanese in need of organ transplants will have less opportunity to undergo the procedure abroad.

"The revision bill, which was submitted to the Diet in March 2006, recognizes brain death as legal death and allows organ donations with family consent regardless of age, unless the deceased had ruled out organ donation before passing away.

"A counter-bill, which was submitted in May this year by a lawmaker critical of the revision bill, limits organ donors to only those who had expressed their willingness to provide organs before their death and only recognizes brain death as legal death with such donors -- following in the footsteps of the current law.

"Either of the two bills was regarded as likely to pass the Lower House. There were also two other bills to revise the current law that were put to the vote on Thursday -- one to ease the age limit for organ donors from under 15 to under 12, and another to define brain death more strictly than the current law.

"Supporters of the bill that passed the Lower House on Thursday are critical of the May 2009 counter-bill, arguing that the latter "would not increase organ transplants nor lead to expanding transplants among children."

"However, some are concerned that recognizing brain death as legal death could be commonly applied in medical care if the bill that cleared the Lower House was passed into law.

"Tsutomu Tomioka, a Lower House member of the Liberal Democratic Party and supporter of the bill, said during a session of the Lower House Committee on Health, Welfare and Labor on June 5: "The bill is not intended to recognize brain death as legal death in situations other than organ transplants."

"Yutaka Fukushima, a Lower House member of Komeito and a supporter of the approved bill, said, "If the bill sparks questions, it would be natural to revise it."

"Opponents of the bill, meanwhile, question the provisions that allow organ donations with family consent even if the potential donors' intention before their death was unknown.

"A public poll conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun earlier this month showed that 57 percent of respondents are in favor of organ transplants from brain-dead children under 15 if approval is received from the child's parents. However, the poll also showed that 52 percent of respondents believe brain death should be recognized as legal death only in cases where people had indicated that they would donate their organs, while only 28 percent said brain death should be generally recognized as legal death.

"On Thursday, 430 lawmakers participating in the vote were allowed to support or oppose the bill regardless of their party policies, since the bill deeply concerns each individual's view on life and death. Members of the Japanese Communist Party, however, abstained from voting."

By Mainichi Shimbun (6/18/2009), Link to article (last visited 6/18/2009)

Saturday, June 6, 2009

DNA and the Criminal Justice System

"In an appalling situation, it looks like a new stain will be added to the history of criminal justice.

"In 1990, a 4-year-old girl was murdered in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, and police arrested Toshikazu Sugaya, a former kindergarten bus driver. On Thursday, Sugaya was released 17 and a half years after his arrest.

"What led to Sugaya's arrest were the results of a newly introduced DNA analysis that showed the DNA pattern on the victim's clothing matched that of Sugaya's bodily fluids.

"Using the test results as leverage, investigators extracted a confession from Sugaya. He later denied the allegations during his trial, saying, "I was forced to make a false confession after the DNA testing."

"However, the lower court, a high court and even the Supreme Court judged that the test results and Sugaya's "confession" were credible. His life sentence was finalized.

"While in prison, Sugaya and his lawyers demanded a retrial and called for a new test because the precision of DNA testing had improved drastically. When Sugaya was arrested, DNA tests could identify 1.2 people from among 1,000. Now, the precision is 1 in 4.7 trillion.

"The results of a new test ordered by the Tokyo High Court reversed the findings of the initial test and determined that the DNA types of the perpetrator and Sugaya did not match.

"The Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office submitted a written opinion to the Tokyo High Court, stating that the results are "likely to serve as clear evidence to absolve (Sugaya)." The high court should promptly order a retrial.

"The revelation is shocking. DNA tests have been used as evidence in many cases, and doubts over the reliability of DNA tests in the early days will have an immeasurable impact.

"In the 1992 case of the murder of two young girls in Iizuka, Fukuoka Prefecture, a man was convicted based on results of a DNA analysis and was executed last year.

"It is quite unusual for experts to reanalyze DNA because of a petition for a retrial. At this juncture, we believe new DNA analyses should be conducted for convictions that were based on early DNA tests.

"Although the testing precision has improved, it is dangerous for police to rely solely on DNA analysis in their criminal investigations.

"The DNA of people other than the perpetrator could show up during the investigation process. In addition to properly collecting DNA samples, police should store enough DNA samples for a reanalysis if necessary.

"We also urge courts to do some serious soul-searching. Because they placed so much faith in a DNA analysis, they may have passed a guilty verdict against Sugaya without adequately studying the credibility of his confession, which the defendant had argued was made under duress.

"This point needs to be strictly examined in the retrial.

"To prevent forced confessions, it is important to make the questioning process transparent. Currently, videorecording is limited to some parts of the interrogation.

"But Sugaya's ordeal shows that the entire process should be recorded.

"Even professional judges make mistakes in their rulings. With the start of lay judge system, ordinary people will be taking part in court proceedings as citizen judges. They should use their common sense to check the validity of the confessions and evidence. Their responsibility is grave."

By Asahi Shimbun (Editorial, 6/5/2009), Link to article (last visited 6/6/2009)