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)

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