The world’s longest-serving death row convict was on Monday granted a retrial by a Japanese court in the latest twist in a legal saga dating back to the 1960s.
Iwao Hakamada, 87, spent nearly five decades waiting for the hangman’s call following his 1968 conviction for quadruple murder before new evidence led to his release seven years ago.
The Tokyo High Court ruled Monday that “Hakamada cannot possibly be identified as the culprit,” given the main evidence presented to finalize his death penalty was unreliable, Kiyomi Tsunagoe, a lawyer on his defense team, told CNN.
She added that the Tokyo court upheld the decision not to return Hakamada to prison, given that he would likely be found not guilty.
“Hakamada’s case is known globally, and there always remained the risk that he could be sent back to prison and face the death penalty again, despite evidence pointing to his innocence,” Tsunagoe said.
Japan’s criminal justice system has a 99.9% conviction rate and is heavily reliant on confessions. The country is the only major developed democracy outside the United States that imposes capital punishment.
In 1966, Hakamada was accused of robbery, arson and the murder of his boss, his boss’ wife and their two children. The family was found stabbed to death in their incinerated home in Shizuoka, central Japan.
The former professional boxer-turned-factory worker initially admitted to all charges before changing his plea at trial. He was sentenced to death in a 2-1 decision by judges, despite repeatedly alleging that police had fabricated evidence and forced him to confess by beating and threatening him. The one dissenting judge stepped down from the bar six months later, demoralized by his inability to stop the sentencing.
A pair of blood-spattered, black trousers and his confession were the evidence against Hakamada. The alleged motive ranged from a murder by request to theft.
But in 2004, a DNA test revealed that blood on the clothing matched neither Hakamada nor the victims’ blood type.
In 2014, the Shizuoka District Court ordered a retrial and freed Hakamada as he awaited his day in court, on the grounds of his age and fragile mental state. But four years later, the Tokyo High Court scrapped the request for a retrial, for reasons it would previously not confirm to CNN.
The decision to grant Hakamada a retrial on Monday came after the Supreme Court in 2020 ordered the Tokyo High Court to reconsider its earlier decision not to reopen the case.
According to Tsunagoe, the court ruled Monday there was a strong possibility that investigators had planted five pieces of clothing allegedly worn by Hakamada during the 1966 murders in a miso paste tank where they were found.
Tsunagoe said the defense team has argued that the evidence used to finalize Hakamada’s death sentence was fabricated. On Monday, the presiding judge supported the defense’s claims that the reddish color of the bloodstains on the clothing allegedly worn by Hakamada would have turned black when immersed in the miso tank over several months, Tsunagoe said.
Prosecutors will decide by next Monday whether to file an appeal against the retrial to the Supreme Court. If the defense can convince them not to, the retrial will be held at the Shizuoka District Court – where Hakamada was initially tried – although the timeline remains uncertain, Tsunagoe said.
“If prosecutors file a retrial after all these decades to the Supreme Court, it will display the extent to which Japanese justice is not functioning,” Tsunagoe said.