Japan Releases Inmate After Nearly A Half-Century On Death Row

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A court in Japan recently released Iwao Hakamada, thought to be the world's longest-serving death row inmate. NPR's Rachel Martin talks with David Johnson, an expert on Japan's legal system.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. In the 1960s, Iwao Hakamada was a young man working at a miso factory in Japan when the factory's manager and his family were found murdered. Prosecutors linked Hakamada to the killings. He was sentenced to death after confessing to the crime, but he retracted his confession soon after he made it.

Nearly half a century later, a court has decided the evidence against Hakamada doesn't hold up. The judge ruled it would be unjust to keep him in prison any longer, and set him free.

At age 78, Hakamada is believed to have been the world's longest-serving death row inmate. And his case is raising big questions about Japan's criminal justice system. For more, we're joined by David Johnson. He's a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, who studies criminal justice in Japan. Thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID JOHNSON: Hi, Rachel. Nice to be here.

MARTIN: Why was this case so flawed? Where were the missteps?

JOHNSON: Well, there were a number of missteps beginning with the way the police conducted the investigation. He was interrogated for an average of 12 hours a day, for 20 days in a row. And at least according to the defense, a good deal of the interrogation tactics were brutal, and certainly intimidating. And so as people do in those circumstances, eventually Hakamada confessed. And soon thereafter, he tried to retract his confession but of course, that's a bell that's hard to unring.

MARTIN: Can you describe what Mr. Hakamada's incarceration was like?

JOHNSON: Well, the Japanese practice is not to notify condemned inmates of the time and date of their execution until an hour or two before it occurs. And so the result is that many people on death row wake up - literally - every morning not knowing if that day might be their last because an execution only becomes known when a guard arrives at your cell and tells you your time has come, put your affairs in order; you have only an hour or so before we're going to march you to the gallows. And while the evidence about Mr. Hakamada's physical and psychological condition isn't perfect, what we know so far suggests he literally went crazy while he was incarcerated for almost five decades.

MARTIN: Japanese prosecutors are famously effective, I understand. They don't take cases they can't win, so there's a 99 percent conviction rate. So how unusual is it for Japan to revisit past cases like this?

JOHNSON: Well, it's unusual. In the 1980s, there were four death penalty retrial cases analogous to this one. And in all four cases, the men were exonerated. And many people in Japan expected that to be a kind of watershed moment for capital punishment. Beginning in 1989, there was a 40-month moratorium on executions in Japan. But executions resumed in 1993, and they've continued almost every year since then.

MARTIN: The U.S. and Japan are the only two countries in the Group of Seven industrialized nations that use the death penalty. How do the countries differ in how they handle miscarriages of justice?

JOHNSON: The most striking contrast between the U.S. and Japan is in the number of death row exonerations. In the U.S., since the 1970s, 144 people have been released from death row. By comparison, in Japan, since 1945, the number is less than six. But how many exonerations occur is in significant part, a function of how hard you look for them after the original trial. And I think Japan's institutions and procedures are a lot less developed than their American counterparts.

MARTIN: Mr. Hakamada has been sent free, but there's also going to be a retrial. So is this really done? I mean, there's still a chance he could be sent back to prison, no?

JOHNSON: That's right. Prosecutors appealed the decision to grant Hakamada a retrial. And estimates are that it will take a year or two for the appellate court to make a decision. Even if the high court turns down the appeal, the prosecutors can appeal yet again to the Supreme Court. And Mr. Hakamada is 78 years old, and he's not in good health. So it's hard telling how this is all going to turn out, in the end.

MARTIN: David Johnson is a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He studies criminal justice in Japan. Thanks so much for talking us through this case.

JOHNSON: Thanks, Rachel.

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