A Judiciary System Guilty of Injustice

Politics Society

Confidence in Japan’s judiciary system has been shaken in recent years as false convictions come to light. One recent example is the 15-year imprisonment of a Nepalese man for a murder he did not commit. Sano Shin’ichi, a journalist who investigated the case, explains how an unjust verdict was reached and what the case reveals about Japan’s judiciary crisis.

On June 7, 2012, the Tokyo High Court granted a retrial to Govinda Prasad Mainali, a Nepalese man who had been serving a life sentence in a prison in Yokohama after his conviction for murdering a female employee of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) in 1997. The same day the court also decided to terminate his prison sentence. In line with the court decision, Mainali was transferred from the prison to the Yokohama District Immigration Office, and on June 15 he was sent back to Nepal, setting foot in his homeland for the first time in 18 years.

Granting a retrial in Japan is already an unusual occurrence, but it is truly extraordinary to then—on the very same day—terminate a prison sentence, release the prisoner, and send him back to his home country.

New DNA Analysis Sparked the Retrial

We should be happy, first of all, that Mainali has been able to return to Nepal and be reunited with his family after serving 15 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit. It was a formidable task to open the heavy door blocking retrial in this case, a process that called into question whether Japan could revive its judicial system.

Forming the backdrop to the unexpected court decision are a string of court cases that have rocked the confidence in Japan’s judiciary system and struck at the nerve center of the Ministry of Justice. Examples include the case of Sugaya Toshikazu, convicted for murdering a four-year-old girl in 1990 and exonerated in 2010 based on new DNA analysis; the robbery-murder case involving Sugiyama Takao and Sakurai Shōji, released on parole in 1996 after each serving 29 years in prison; and the bogus charges of falsifying documents made in 2009 against Muraki Atsuko, former director general of the Equal Employment, Children, and Family Bureau of the Health, Labor, and Welfare Ministry. These cases mark a courageous first step toward restoring the lost confidence in the judiciary, and as such they merit sincere praise.

The decisive factor that led directly to reopening the Mainali case was new DNA analysis showing that the pubic hair found at the murder scene and the semen inside the murdered woman were not those of the accused. This clear proof of innocence came to light in 2011, the same year Japan was struck by an unprecedented disaster resulting from an enormous tsunami and the nuclear accident in Fukushima. The way this development in the judiciary world has been intertwined with that natural disaster evokes a sense of historical coincidence.

The nuclear disaster shattered Japanese people’s belief in the myth of safe nuclear energy. Meanwhile, the recent scandals have shaken people’s confidence in the judiciary. But can it truly be said that the myth of judicial infallibility no longer holds sway?

Upon hearing of the decision to grant a retrial, the Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office immediately filed an objection and its deputy chief described the decision as “totally unacceptable.” Such a petulant reaction, at this point in time, is simply ridiculous. If the prosecutors wish to spare themselves further humiliation, they should immediately rescind the objection they filed, which has no purpose other than to protect themselves and their organization.

Seeking to close up everything inside a protective black box, precisely when the court’s decision had restored some trust in Japan’s judiciary, is terribly childish.

A System Stacked in Favor of the Prosecution

Human beings make mistakes at times. And when this occurs a person’s worth and credibility will depend on whether the error is acknowledged and an apology is made. We all became keenly aware of this in 2011 in the wake of the March 11 disaster.

Why is it, then, that so many false charges continue to be made in Japan’s judiciary system? This can be explained, first of all, by the lack of transparency in the way evidence is disclosed. I can elaborate on this with the Mainali case, which I investigated as a journalist.

Disputes between the prosecution and defense over the disclosure of evidence is like a game of Othello, where each side is flipping over the pieces, turning black to white and white to black. Those unfamiliar with the justice system might think that the prosecutors and defenders are on equal footing when playing this game, but in fact there is no equality whosoever between their respective positions. If the defense seeks to have evidence disclosed that is disadvantageous to the prosecution, the prosecution can block that evidence. This might come as a shock to some, but it is precisely what happened in the Mainali case.

The DNA evidence in that case showed that the semen found in the murdered woman’s body 15 years ago was not in fact that of the defendant. This fact became clear when the defense sought for the analysis to be introduced as new evidence, but the prosecutors dragged their feet, only acquiescing in July 2011.

In the jury trial for the case, which began in May 2009, all of the evidence the defense demanded of the prosecution had to be disclosed during the pretrial proceedings, but up to that point the battle between the two sides had not be fought on fair terms at all. It was if, to borrow the Othello analogy again, the prosecution had the advantage of placing its pieces in each of the four corners. Give that unfair situation, it is hardly surprising that a false conviction resulted.

The Need to Question Assumptions

Another point worth mentioning is that the police are loath to revise their initial assumptions in an investigation.

When the decision to grant a retrial in the Mainali case was issued, an official from the Metropolitan Police Department who had been in charge of investigating the murder said that “absolutely no mistake had been made in the investigation.” I was dumbstruck to hear this official say that he knew the man was the murderer because he saw him smile during the investigation.

Carrying out an investigation in such a manner is the height of irresponsibility. How can the police and prosecutors compensate Mainali for the precious years he has lost because of this miscarriage of justice? Thinking about what has happened is enough to rekindle my anger.

The false accusation made against this Nepalese man also reflects Japanese racism against ethnic minorities. The court would have been unlikely to hand down a life sentence in the murder case if the suspect had been from a European country, the United States, South Korea, or China—out of fear of the resulting political pressure. Because he was a day laborer from the impoverished Asian country of Nepal, though, he was identified as a suspect in the investigation and found guilty in a slapdash trial. Incidentally, at the time of the trial, Nepal was the largest recipient of Japan’s official developmental aid.

A person would have only had to walk around the crime scene to have known that Mainali could not have been the murderer. The body of the murdered woman was found not even a meter away from the room where he was living. The woman was killed in the middle of the night on March 8, 1997, but the body was only discovered 11 days later, on March 19. If Mainali had been the murderer, he would have had plenty of time to flee. Yet, far from fleeing, he turned himself in to the police for overstaying his visa. It is hard to imagine any person, apart from Hannibal Lecter, living for nearly two weeks right next to the body of a woman he had murdered.

Another factor that has cultivated false accusations in Japan is the lack of progress in making investigations more transparent, despite calls from all quarters for this to be done.

Shedding Light on Police Investigations

Immediately after the TEPCO murder case, I flew to Nepal to meet the men who had shared a room with Mainali in Tokyo. During this trip, I received definitive proof that he had been falsely accused of the crime.

One roommate I met demonstrated that Mainali had an alibi; another roommate told me he was beaten up by the police, who then arranged for him to receive a good job in return for a statement incriminating Mainali. This is how the police used the carrot and the stick to frame the Nepalese man as the murderer.

I was able to verify the testimony received from these roommates upon returning to Japan. The man who claimed to have been beaten by the police during the investigation provided me with his patient record at the hospital that treated him. My visit to the hospital confirmed that they had indeed treated him for injuries.

I was also amazed to find, as the man had claimed, that the police indeed had set him up with a job with a moneylender to keep him quiet. The head of the firm was a former police officer. All this transpired despite the police knowing that the source of their incriminating statement was himself in violation of the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act.

Pretending to be a customer, I got in contact with the firm, but the next day I was amazed to find that the loan company had vanished into thin air—perhaps sensing that I was an investigative reporter. This gave me the feeling that I might be taking my life into my own hands in pursuing the story.

The only way for Japan to uproot the false convictions of the innocent is to begin making police investigations fully transparent and to fully disclose the evidence.

TEPCO Murder Case

On March 19, 1997, the dead body of a 39-year-old female TEPCO employee was found in an empty first-floor apartment in the Maruyamachō area of Shibuya, Tokyo. She had been strangled to death on the night of March 8 and ¥40,000 had been stolen from her purse. A 37-year-old Nepalese man living in the neighboring apartment, named Govinda Prasad Mainali, fled out of fear that his status as an illegal immigrant would be discovered; however, upon realizing he was suspected of the murder, he turned himself in to the police. After his arrest for violation of the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, Mainali was arrested a second time on suspicion of robbery and murder. He proclaimed himself innocent, but on appeal he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison after it was determined that he was the only one likely to have entered the crime scene and that his explanation lacked credibility. The ruling was upheld after the Supreme Court turned down his appeal.

On March 24, 2005, Mainali filed an appeal for retrial with the Tokyo High Court. On June 7, 2012, the court announced it would begin a retrial and halt his prison sentence. Upon release from a prison in Yokohama, he was transported to the Yokohama District Immigration Office and then deported from Japan for violating the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act; he arrived back in Nepal on June 16.

(Originally written in Japanese on July 11, 2012. The photo in the banner shows Govinda Prasad Mainali returning to his home in Nepal; courtesy Jiji Press.)

TEPCO law justice Sano Shin’ichi Govinda Prasad Mainali Nepal Yokohama District Immigration Office crime DNA evidence Ministry of Justice Sugaya Toshikazu Sugiyama Takao Shoji Sakurai retrial Muraki Atsuko Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office Tokyo High Court Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act