Miscarriage of justice could be turning point for Japan's justice system


One man’s wrongful conviction for a brutal child murder could change the face of police investigations in Japan, reports DAVID McNEILLfrom Tokyo

A TIMID MAN, Toshikazu Sugaya visibly trembles when he recalls the day the police came calling. From the minute they arrived at his door on a wintry morning 18 years ago, they appeared convinced of his guilt, he says.

“They barged in and told me to sit down. Then they kept saying, ‘You killed that kid, didn’t you’. I said ‘no, no’, but they didn’t believe me.”

At the police station in Ashikaga, a small city just over an hour north of Tokyo, detectives pulled his hair, kicked him and shouted in his face, he recalls. They waved around a photo of four-year-old Mami Matsuda, whom they accused him of raping and killing.

After a 13-hour interrogation in which he was denied food, water or a lawyer, he confessed. Then he burst into tears. “I was just so scared.”

That false confession cost Sugaya dearly. Now 62, he spent more than 17 years in jail for Mami Matsuda’s 1990 murder before being freed a month ago in a rare judicial reversal that has sent shock waves through the justice system. As he waits for the state officially to declare him innocent, reformers are rallying around his case, which they think might finally force change on Japan’s much-criticised police and courts.

“I believe his release could do for Japan what the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six cases did for the UK,” says Sugaya’s lawyer Hiroshi Sato. Those wrongful- conviction cases led to a major overhaul of police methods and the establishment of the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

“Japan needs something similar to bring it into the modern world,” Sato adds.

Detectives followed Sugaya for a year in search of evidence to support their belief that he murdered Mami, whose body was dumped by a riverside in Ashikaga. Police matched Sugaya’s DNA from sperm retrieved from the dead girl’s discarded knickers.

Their interest in him began after they discovered in preliminary checks that he shared the same B blood-type as the killer. They found a cripplingly shy man whom they believed fitted the profile of someone who would commit such an awful crime.

Middle-aged and single after a marriage that had failed because of his inability to perform sexually, he was an avid consumer of porn. His job driving a kindergarten bus put him in proximity with potential victims. All that was missing was evidence.

In June 1991, the police rifled through Sugaya’s garbage and found what they were looking for – a discarded tissue loaded with his masturbatory sperm. They sent it to the National Research Institute for Police Science which was pioneering the new but largely untested world of DNA forensics in Japan. The institute declared a match.

Like many suspects, Sugaya later retracted his confession, but had little chance of proving his innocence in courts that overwhelmingly tilt toward the police and prosecutors.

Admissions of guilt are still legally highly prized and the police are allowed up to 23 days to interrogate a suspect. Defence lawyers rarely successfully challenge confessions in a system with a conviction rate of more than 99 per cent. Lawyers are not allowed to be present during interrogations, either before or after indictment. Suspects often allege psychological and sometimes physical mistreatment.

“It is a system tailor-made for police abuse,” says lawyer and reformer Takashi Takano. In 27 years of criminal practice, just five of his clients have been completely exonerated.

The system has come under fire from the Japan Bar Association, Human Rights Watch, the International Bar Association and the UN Committee on Torture, which in 2007 delivered a withering report on Japan’s astonishingly high conviction rate.

Critics acknowledge that the police are mostly thorough and that ultimately Japan incarcerates far fewer people than most developed countries – about a third of the UK rate. They say, however, that the Sugaya case again shows defendants are often the victims of horrendous abuse.

Once at the mercy of the prosecutors, Sugaya was almost helpless. Even his lawyer at the time believed he was guilty and abandoned him, says Sato. He was sentenced to life in July 1993.

In prison, he was intimidated and beaten by a fellow inmate angered by his protestations of innocence. It wasn’t until the offer of help from Sato, a DNA expert who agreed to work pro-bono, that light appeared at the end of the tunnel. “I told him to secretly put a hair into an envelope and we would do another DNA test,” Sato recalls.

Private DNA tests showed that he was innocent. In October 1997, Sato submitted the new evidence to the Supreme Court, requesting a retrial. The request was denied in 2000. In February 2008, another petition was rejected.

Then, unexpectedly, in December last year the Tokyo High Court ordered a fresh DNA test. Neither Sato nor Sugaya knows why, but they suspect public pressure played a part.

Two years ago, network broadcaster NTV began a rare media investigation into the case, citing its similarities with four other unsolved child murders in the area. Many now speculate that the police have missed a serial killer, who may never be caught: Japan’s statute of limitations has already expired on the murders, a fact that infuriates Sugaya.

“There should be no statute of limitations on cases like this. It’s totally unacceptable,” he says.

Sugaya’s release has triggered a string of rare apologies, among them the head of the local prefectural police force, Shoichiro Ishikawa. Sugaya, though bitter, has accepted them all but waits for the one that counts: the original police team that forced his confession. “I want them to face me like men and say sorry.”

TV reporters recently door- stopped the now retired cops, who could be heard snarling through letterboxes. The police have already hinted, says Sato, at a private apology – away from the prying eyes of the media.

Elsewhere, however, there are worrying signs of business as usual. In the High Court last month, Judge Hiroshi Yamura, freeing Sugaya, rejected defence demands to summon the police and scientists from the original trial. Some time this year, there will be an embarrassing and highly public official admission of systemic failure, but no investigation into why it occurred – a whitewash, believes Sato.

Still, he thinks the aftershocks may bring something long demanded by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations – curbs on Japan’s much criticised system of long pretrial detentions (daiyo-kangoku) and the videotaping of police confessions.

Sugaya can expect compensation of about ¥12,500 for every day he spent in prison – about ¥70 million (€519,640). Even with that, though, restarting life will be tough. His parents are long dead and his siblings have severed ties in a bid to put the scandal behind them.

Now free, Sugaya struggles with the simplest details of modern life. Washrooms, particularly hand-driers and high-tech toilets, flummox him. Dodging people on the street after so many years walking in single file is an ordeal.

“There are many more buildings in Tokyo than when I went inside. It all feels so strange to me.”