A man believed to be the world’s longest-serving death row inmate walked free from jail yesterday after decades in solitary confinement, in a rare about-face for Japan’s rigid justice system.
A slightly unsteady-looking Iwao Hakamada, 78, emerged from the Tokyo prison with his campaigning sister after Shizuoka District Court in central Japan ordered a fresh trial over a grisly 1966 murder.
Japan and the US are the only two G7 rich nations to maintain capital punishment, and the death penalty has overwhelming support among Japanese.
Capital punishment is carried out by hanging in Japan, and prisoners do not know the date until the morning of the day they are executed.
For decades, Japan did not even officially announce that capital sentences had been carried out.
Hakamada, who is in declining health, was accused in 1966 of killing four people, including two children, and burning down their house in a case that soon became a cause celebre.
Though he once admitted to the killing, he retracted this and pleaded innocent during his trial, and was sentenced to death in 1968.
The sentence was upheld by the Japanese Supreme Court in 1980, and Hakamada is believed to be the world’s longest-serving death row inmate.
Hakamada’s lawyers argued that DNA tests on bloodstained clothing said to be their client’s showed that the blood was not his. That prompted presiding judge Hiroaki Murayama to revoke the death sentence and order Hakamada’s release pending the retrial, terming the original verdict an injustice.
Hakamado’s sister Hideko, who battled for decades to clear the name of her younger brother, who is now said to be showing signs of dementia, hailed the ruling.
“I want to see him as soon as I can and tell him: ‘You really persevered,’” she told a news conference. “I want to tell him that very soon now, he will be free.”
Prosecutors, quoted by media, said they would appeal the ruling.
Nearly 86 percent of Japanese feel that keeping the death penalty is “unavoidable,” according to a Japanese government survey conducted late in 2010, and there has been little public debate. Experts say extensive media coverage of crime and worries about safety are behind the support.
Opponents point to the chance of innocent people being executed given that confessions form the basis of most convictions, with police often accused of using harsh tactics to obtain them.
Eight people were put to death in Japan last year, and there are believed to be nearly 130 on death row.