Japan court orders retrial for Iwao Hakamada, 87-year-old ex-boxer who is world’s longest-serving death row inmate

Tokyo’s high court on Monday ordered a retrial for an 87-year-old former professional boxer who has been on death row for more than five decades after a murder conviction that his lawyers said was based on a forced confession and fabricated evidence.

The Tokyo High Court said Iwao Hakamada, who is the world’s longest-serving death row inmate, deserves a retrial because of a possibility that key evidence that led to his conviction could have been fabricated by investigators, the Japan Bar Association said in a statement.

Hakamada has been out of prison but still not cleared of charges since 2014, when the Shizuoka District Court in central Japan suspended his execution and ordered a retrial and his release. That ruling was overturned by the Tokyo High Court until the Supreme Court in 2020 ordered the court to reconsider.

His defense lawyers rushed out of the courtroom and flashed banners saying “Retrial.”

Hideko Hakamada (front-R) and supporters of her brother Iwao Hakamada, enter the Tokyo High Court on March 13, 2023. 

KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images

“I was waiting for this day for 57 years and it has come,” said Hakamada’s sister Hideko, 90, who has campaigned tirelessly on her brother’s behalf. “Finally a weight has been lifted from my shoulders.”

Hakamada was convicted of murder in the 1966 killing of a company manager and three of his family members, and setting fire to their central Japan home, where he was a live-in employee. He was sentenced to death two years later. He initially denied the accusations then confessed, which he later said he was forced to because of violent interrogation by police.

Hakamada was not executed because of lengthy appeals and the retrial process. It took 27 years for the Supreme Court to deny his first appeal for a retrial. He filed a second appeal in 2008, and the court finally ruled in his favor on Thursday.

The point of contention was five pieces of blood-stained clothing that investigators said Hakamada allegedly wore during the crime and hid in a tank of fermented soybean paste, or miso, found more than a year after his arrest.

The Tokyo High Court decision on Monday acknowledged scientific experiments that clothing soaked in miso for more than a year turns too dark for blood stains to be spotted, saying there is a possibility of fabrication, most likely by investigators.

Defense lawyers and earlier retrial decisions said the blood samples did not match Hakamada’s DNA, and trousers that prosecutors submitted as evidence were too small for Hakamada and did not fit when he tried them on.

National broadcaster NHK said the court’s presiding judge Fumio Daizen cast doubt on the credibility of the clothes as evidence.

“There is no evidence other than the clothes that could determine Hakamada was the perpetrator, so it is clear that reasonable doubt arises,” NHK quoted him as saying.

Former Japanese professional boxer Iwao Hakamada (L), who was sentenced to death for the murder of four members of a family in 1966 and released in 2014, and his sister Hideko (R) leave after a press conference in Tokyo on November 25, 2019.

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Hakamada has been serving his sentence at home since his release in 2014 because his frail health and age made him a low risk for escape.

Japan and the United States are the only two countries in the Group of Seven advanced nations that retain capital punishment. A survey by the Japanese government showed an overwhelming majority of the public support executions.

Executions are carried out in secrecy in Japan and prisoners are not informed of their fate until the morning they are hanged. Since 2007, Japan has begun disclosing the names of those executed and some details of their crimes, but disclosures are still limited.

The death penalty still enjoys broad public support and debate on the issue is rare.

Supporters say nearly 50 years of detention, mostly in solitary confinement with the ever-present threat of execution, took a heavy toll on Hakamada’s mental health.

He told AFP in 2018 he felt he was “fighting a bout every day.”

His sister Hideko told a news conference later on Monday she does not talk about the trials with him.

“I will only tell him to rest assured, because we got a good result,” she said. “Now, I just need to make sure I can see the retrial begin.”

The process for a retrial could take years if a special appeal is filed, however, and lawyers have been protesting against this system.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations welcomed Monday’s ruling but said in a statement it “strongly demands prosecutors swiftly start the retrial process without issuing a special appeal to the Supreme Court.”

“We cannot afford any further delay to remedy Mr. Hakamada, who has an advanced age of 87 and suffers mental and physical conditions after 47 years of physical restraint,” association head Motoji Kobayashi said.

Rights group Amnesty International also welcomed the decision.

“This ruling presents a long-overdue chance to deliver some justice to Hakamada Iwao, who has spent more than half a century under sentence of death despite the blatant unfairness of the trial that saw him convicted,” said Hideaki Nakagawa, director of Amnesty International Japan. “Now that the Tokyo High Court has acknowledged Hakamada’s right to the fair trial he was denied more than 50 years ago, it is imperative that prosecutors allow this to happen. 

 Hideko Hakamada, sister of former boxer Iwao Hakamada who has been on death row in Japan for 47 years, shows a picture of her young brother Iwao during an interview outside the Tokyo Detention House in Tokyo on May 20, 2013. 

KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images

AFP contributed to this report.

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