Saturday, December 3, 2011

"Editorial: All evidence should be released in criminal trials to prevent false convictions

"A court decision to retry a man who was convicted of a murder he claims he never committed has highlighted the need to fully release all evidence in criminal trials to prevent false convictions.

"The Kanazawa branch of the Nagoya High Court on Nov. 30 decided to retry Shoji Maekawa, 46, who served a seven-year prison term for murdering a junior high school girl in Fukui 25 years ago.

"The court made the decision after scrutinizing evidence including that which was not released in the trials of Maekawa, and the decision should be regarded as appropriate.

"Maekawa has categorically denied any involvement in the murder since he was arrested in March 1987, one year after the incident. Since there was no hard evidence that directly linked him to the incident, the focal point at issue during his trials was the credibility of a few acquaintances' testimonies suggesting that he was involved in the incident.

"The Fukui District Court acquitted Maekawa after pointing out that there are inconsistencies and contradictions between testimonies provided by the witnesses. In response to an appeal filed by prosecutors, the Kanazawa branch of the Nagoya High Court overturned the lower court's acquittal and sentenced Maekawa to seven years in prison after deeming the witnesses' testimonies are credible, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court. After he served his prison term, Maekawa asked the high court to retry the case in July 2004.

"What overturned the confirmed ruling was new evidence that prosecutors released for the first time in response to demands by the legal team for Maekawa and advice by the court. The new evidence includes unclear testimonies provided by eyewitnesses and photos of an autopsy conducted on the victim's body.

"The high court examined the new evidence as well as evidence based on which Maekawa had been convicted in a comprehensive fashion. It then pointed to the possibility that a weapon other than one left at the murder scene was used for the crime and pointed out that no traces of blood were found in a car that Maekawa was supposed to have ridden in after the incident. The high court further raised questions about the credibility of the acquaintances' testimonies, and concluded that there are rational doubts about recognizing him as the culprit.

"Prosecutors have come under mounting pressure to release all evidence relating to the focal point during trials since the Code of Criminal Procedure was amended in 2004 prior to the introduction of the lay-judge system. Still, prosecutors are authorized to take custody of almost all evidence. In the Fukui murder case, there is no doubt that prosecutors had deliberately concealed evidence in favor of Maekawa.

"In the postal discount abuse case last year, a prosecutor at the Osaka District Public Prosecutors Office's special investigation unit falsified evidence in an attempt to win conviction of the key defendant.

"The latest decision to open a retrial of Maekawa has highlighted the need to thoroughly review all evidence.

"A system should be created to mandate law enforcers to fully release evidence at least in the trials of serious crimes in which defendants deny their involvement as well as in retrials, instead of leaving a decision on how much evidence should be disclosed to the discretion of courts.

"The recording and filming of the questioning of suspects and defendants have already started on a trial basis, but the latest decision has illustrated the need to record or film the questioning of witnesses and others involved as well.

"Statements made by prosecutors and defendants and their lawyers have particular weight in lay-judge trials. However, the full release of evidence and the recording of questioning are indispensable to help lay judges selected from members of the general public make fair judgments.

"A quarter of a century has passed since Maekawa was arrested. In line with the principle of the benefit of the doubt, prosecutors should place priority on opening the retrial in order to get to the bottom of the incident rather than wasting time by appealing the high court's decision."

By Mainichi Shimbun (Editorial, 12/1/2011), Link to article (last visited 12/3/2011)