Tokyo, April 8…A 60 year old woman on tiny Kyusuhu Island was found not guilty of murdering her brother and burning down his house last month. The presiding judge criticized police for fabricating evidence and coercing a false confession. Her acquittal made front-page news and caused a national uproar.
Because out of the thousands of criminal trials in Japan that month it was the first of only two acquittals. The other came in a voter fraud prosecution, also on Kyusuhu, of eleven elderly men who were subjected to 700 hours of interrogation and held in solitary confinement for 400 days until one of them died and the another broke down and confessed.
In Japan, if you get arrested you’re going to jail. The conviction rate is 99%. Defense lawyers advise clients to confess as a means of showing remorse and possibly getting a lighter sentence. If they plead innocent they will be denied bail, kept in isolation, will probably be convicted anyway and given a much harsher punishment.
Shizuka Kamei, former chief of the National Police says the high conviction rate is “abnormal.” Police are under pressure to solve a crime as soon as it is reported. They care more about getting a plausible suspect than the actual culprit.
Cases are heard by a three-judge panel. Prosecutors are not obliged to disclose evidence to the defense or release information they do not use in court. Coerced confessions make up for the lack of hard evidence
Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama says that the concept of being innocent until proven guilty is “an idea I want to constrain.” Mr. Hayotama is a vigorous defender of the death penalty as well, having doubled the rate of executions in the last year, even bringing several elderly infirm prisoners to the gallows.
Capital punishment is enforced “in extreme secrecy,” according to the Economist Magazine. Prisoners are held in isolation for decades and are not told of their impending execution until an hour before it occurs. For the first time in modern history the names of those executed were revealed in December of ’07. Many people were surprised to see friends and family members among the dead.
But things are about to change. Judicial reformers are challenging the traditional Japanese belief in authority. Next year a panel of six jurors will now join judges in hearing criminal cases and verdicts will be decided by majority vote.