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Japan court backs retrial for 87-year-old death row inmate

Tokyo’s Supreme Court has ruled that 87-year-old Iwao Hakamada, who spent more than 45 years on death row following a controversial murder conviction, must be given a new trial.

Hakamada was “temporarily released” in March 2014 after new DNA evidence cast serious doubt on the reliability of his conviction and called for a new trial by the court that initially convicted him.

Hakamada’s older sister Hideko, who has been campaigning for her brother for years, said she was relieved by Monday’s developments.

“I waited 57 years for this day and it has come,” said the 90-year-old, according to AFP news agency. “Finally a weight has been lifted from my shoulders.”

Hideaki Nakagawa, director of Amnesty International Japan, said the verdict was a “long overdue chance” for justice for the former professional boxer.

“Hakamada’s conviction was based on a coerced ‘confession’ and there are serious doubts about the other evidence used against him,” Nakagawa said in a statement. “Yet, at the age of 87, he still hasn’t had a chance to challenge the verdict that has kept him under the constant threat of the gallows for most of his life.”

Amnesty urged prosecutors not to appeal the court’s ruling.

Who is Iwao Hakamada?

Hakamada was a former professional boxer who was once sixth in Japan in the featherweight category.

He turned professional in 1957 at the age of 21 and later married a cabaret dancer with whom he had a son.

But in 1962, Hakamada suffered a knee injury that ended his boxing career.

Hideko Hakamada poses with an honorary boxing champion belt presented to her brother by WBC president Mauricio Sulaiman shortly after his release in 2014 (File: Japan Pool via AP)

In his thirties, he opened a bar, but it didn’t go well. His marriage also failed.

Deep in debt, in 1965 he met Fumio Hashiguchi, the owner of a miso (soy paste) factory, where he got a job.

What happened in the miso factory?

On June 30, 1966, Hashiguchi was found dead along with his wife and two teenage children.

The family had been robbed and their bodies and house set on fire.

Why was Hakamada accused?

Two months after the murders, Hakamada was arrested.

There appeared to be no evidence to link him to the crimes.

Police questioned Hakamada without a lawyer for 20 days until he finally confessed.

In a testimony signed on September 9, 1966, Hakamada said he was responsible for the robbery, the murders and the fire. He agreed with police charges that he was wearing pajamas at the time and used a small knife to peel the soybeans to kill the family.

Hakamada later retracted his statement, saying he was beaten, threatened and forced to confess by police.

At trial, a lab specialist testified that the drop of blood in Hakamada’s pajamas was insufficient for analysis.

A year after the murders and Hakamada’s arrest, prosecutors and courts presented blood-stained clothing as key evidence.

They claimed that the five items of clothing found in a miso tank about 14 months after the murder were those worn by the killer.

Hakamada’s supporters said the clothes didn’t fit him and the stains were too fresh for a crime committed more than a year ago.

Hideko holds up a photo of her brother as a young man.
Hideko Hakamada was the biggest supporter of her younger brother Iwao, who was sentenced to death for murders in 1966 (File: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP)

Despite the concerns, Hakamada was convicted and imprisoned in 1968. His subsequent attempts to retract the confession failed, and the verdict was upheld by Japan’s highest court in 1980.

What happened on death row?

Hakamada is said to have spent more time on death row than any other inmate anywhere in the world.

Much of that time was in solitary confinement.

Convicted prisoners in Japan are usually told they will be executed the morning the sentence is due, and Hakamada supporters say the experience compounded the trauma of his imprisonment and left him with long-term mental health problems.

The country’s Justice Ministry has argued that such an approach is necessary to “avoid disturbing the prisoner”.

According to Amnesty, the families of the prisoners are not usually informed of the hanging until after it has taken place.

There have been incidents of prisoners being executed while their cases were awaiting retrial.

The last execution in Japan was in July 2022 when Tomohiro Kato was hanged for killing seven people in Tokyo’s Akihabara electronics district in 2008.

Japan and the United States are among the few developed countries that still use the death penalty.

Why was he released?

Hakamada was granted temporary release on March 27, 2014, when the Shizuoka District Court, which had sentenced him to death in 1968, agreed that he should receive a new trial due to new DNA evidence related to the clothing.

In later appeals, the Hakamada defense team had argued that the clothing evidence was planted.

The decision to open a new trial was also based on more than 600 other pieces of evidence ordered by the court to be made public by the prosecutor, according to Amnesty, which said some pieces undermined previous evidence presented in court .

Although he has been out of prison for nine years and lives with Hideko, Hakamada remains on death row and prosecutors have appealed the decision to allow him a new trial.

In June 2018, the Tokyo Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s decision and denied a new trial. After Hakamada’s lawyers appealed, in December 2020 the Supreme Court overturned the Supreme Court’s decision and asked the lower court to re-examine the appeal.