Man who spent 45 years on death row in Japan hopes for chance to clear name

In the early hours of 30 June 1966 a fire swept through the home of the managing director of a miso maker in Shizuoka, central Japan. After the fire was put out, police found the bodies of the executive, his wife, and their two teenage children. They had all been stabbed to death.

Iwao Hakamada, who had worked for the firm as a live-in employee, was arrested on suspicion of murdering the family, setting fire to their home and stealing 200,000 yen (£973) in cash. Two years later he was found guilty of murder and arson and sentenced to hang. He maintained innocence throughout his 45 years awaiting execution – the longest any prisoner worldwide has spent on death row.

In a country where condemned prisoners can spend long periods awaiting execution, Hakamada’s case took a critical turn in 2014. The court that had originally convicted him ruled some of the evidence unsafe and ordered his release. A higher court later ordered a retrial.

The lower court said evidence presented at his trial by the police “may have been fabricated”, while his lawyers said DNA tests on bloodstained clothes retrieved from a vat of miso proved the blood was not his.

Hakamada has always contended that he was forced to confess during interrogations that typically lasted 12 hours a day. Almost six decades after he was condemned to die, prosecutors continue to call for his execution in a case that has become a cause célèbre for opponents of Japan’s use of the death penalty, even as other countries abolish capital punishment.

The former professional boxer, now aged 88 and battling physical and mental illness, will learn his fate in late September when the Shizuoka district court rules in his retrial, which started in March 2023. He has not appeared in court, having been declared mentally unfit to give credible evidence. His long incarceration has exposed what campaigners call inhumane treatment of death row inmates in Japan.

In most cases, people sentenced to death have been found guilty of multiple murders, often committed with other crimes such as robbery, rape or theft. Condemned prisoners typically spend years – even decades – in solitary confinement on death row while appeals slowly make their way through the courts. When their conviction is finalised, they are given just hours’ notice of their execution, and no opportunity to speak with lawyers or families. Their final conversation is usually with a Buddhist priest.

Japan, the only G7 country along with the US to retain capital punishment, has drawn international criticism of its “secret” executions, with campaigners using Hakamada’s case to accuse it of driving prisoners insane and subjecting them to “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment.

Hideko Hakamada, the condemned man’s sister, is optimistic, although lawyers believe the prosecutors could appeal a not-guilty verdict. “Now the goal is in sight,” she told reporters in Tokyo on Wednesday. “This has felt like a neverending process. I’m doing this not just for the sake of my brother but for other people who have been falsely accused and imprisoned.”

Hideko, who has spent decades protesting her brother’s innocence, added: “I never used to give much thought to the death penalty as it has always been there, but because of what happened to my brother I am now opposed to it.”

Hakamada’s defence lawyer, Hideyo Ogawa, said his client’s ordeal had only hardened his opposition to capital punishment. “Seeing Iwao-san over the past 10 years has shown me what the death penalty does to a person … it is like he is not here with us, but in a world of his own. That is the impact it has on someone when there has been a false conviction, and that should not be allowed to happen in today’s society.”

Japan is one of only 55 countries including, China, North Korea and the US, that retain capital punishment, while more than 140 others, including all members of the European Union, have abolished the death penalty in law or practice, according to Amnesty International. Japan has observed de facto moratoriums on hangings, but there is little political appetite for abolition that would spare the 106 people currently on death row. Opinion polls have consistently shown strong support for the death penalty – a sentiment that strengthened after a doomsday cult carried out a fatal sarin gas attack.

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Hakamada has always faced near-impossible odds. Around 99% of criminal cases that go to trial in Japan end in convictions, and retrials are rare. He is one of only a handful of death row inmates to secure a retrial, although precedent suggests he has cause for optimism, as the other cases ended in acquittals.

In November 1973, in one of thousands of letters he wrote from prison, first to his mother and then his sister, Hakamada protested his innocence. “I am a prisoner on death row who has been wrongfully convicted,” he wrote. “I am forced to live with enduring grief that permeates my body. My heart grows cold beyond description out of unending fear of the unknown … execution. My whole body trembles as if being hit by a cold winter blast.”

Speaking at the final hearing in his retrial last month, Hideko told of her brother’s last chance to clear his name. “I am now 91 and my brother is 88,” she said.

“We are close to the end of our lives. I would like to ask the court to let Iwao live out his remaining days like a human being.”

The Guardian