On the 27 March 2014, Hakamada Iwao, a former boxer, was released from death row having been there for 46 years since 1968. He has consistently stated that he was forced to confess to the murder of a family of four in 1966. However, until this date, his appeals for retrial had been rejected by both local and Supreme Court.
Hakamada has been suffering from serious mental illness after decades of imprisonment and had not been deemed in a fit condition to meet his family or attorney to discuss a retrial. It was not until the 3 February 2012 that an official meeting was finally able to be held at the Shizuoka Regional District as part of the process applying for a retrial. The main focus of the discussion was to re-conduct DNA analysis to examine five pieces of clothing which were stained with the victims’ blood. Nonetheless, the Public Prosecutor’s Office protested against the proposal, claiming that if the DNA examiner came to the detention centre to take some samples from Hakamada it would result in ‘confidentiality issues’. The Public Prosecutor’s Office stated that it had to be staff of the National Research Institute of Police Science who undertook such work. This response by the Public Prosecutor’s Office to Hakamada’s defence team in 2012 implied that avoiding the potential for information regarding detention conditions to leak out into the public arena overrides proving the guilt or innocence of a man who has been on death row for more than four decades. However, the defence team persisted and on the 13 April 2012, DNA analysis revealed that Hakamada’s DNA did not match any of the samples found on the clothes which had been used as evidence of his involvement in the crime.
(Mainichi, ‘Hakamada Jiken: 3sha Kyogi, DNA Kantei no Jiki Mitei Shikeishu no Ane “Hayaku Shite”’, 4 February 2012)
The release of Hakamada has grabbed the attention of policymakers, scholars and the public. It may look at first sight that the Hakamada case has become a wakeup call for the Japanese government and might lead it towards abolition of the death penalty. However, previous experience of other cases and the governments resistance to external pressures means it is likely that the Japanese government will treat this event as yet another exceptional case and endeavour to retain the death penalty with reference to ‘wide public support’, arguing that this is endorsed by the governmental opinion polls. What is required now for the anti-death-penalty lobby is to focus upon raising public consciousness about false charge issues to stimulate in-depth public discourse on retention of the capital punishment policy. There is greater potential for this following the introduction in 2009 of saiban-in seido (quasi-jury system) as lay members of the community are now directly involved in individual cases in both determining guilt and the decision on sentencing, including imposition of the death penalty. The possibility as a lay member of the community of being involved in a decision that could lead or has led to the death of an innocent person reflects a significant shift of responsibility and therefore culpability. For the abolitionist lobby, focusing specifically on this new link in the judicial chain provides the opportunity to incrementally build a louder public voice, by highlighting new cases as they arrive and amplifying the reservations of those lay people who have subsequently found themselves as an uncomfortable cog in the judicial machine.