The Tokyo High Court has granted a retrial to Iwao Hakamada, an 87-year-old former boxer who has been on death row in Japan for 55 years.
In 1968, Hakamada was convicted of murdering his boss and the boss’s family after confessing to the crime under duress.
He later recanted the confession, but his verdict was confirmed by the Supreme Court in 1980. Hakamada spent nearly five decades on death row and was certified as the world’s longest-serving death row inmate by Guinness World Records in 2014.
After a district court in the central city of Shizuoka granted a retrial in 2014, finding that investigators could have planted evidence, the Tokyo High Court overturned the lower court’s ruling four years later.
The case was then sent to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2020 that the Tokyo High Court must reconsider its decision.
One key piece of evidence used to convict Hakamada was a set of blood-stained clothes that emerged more than a year after the crime.
Supporters say the clothes did not fit him, and the bloodstains were too vivid given the time elapsed. DNA tests found no link between Hakamada, the clothes, and the blood, but the high court rejected the testing methods.
The court’s presiding judge cast doubt on the credibility of the clothes as evidence, stating that there was no evidence other than the clothes that could determine Hakamada was the perpetrator, and that reasonable doubt arises.
Hakamada’s sister Hideko, who has campaigned tirelessly on her brother’s behalf, expressed relief at the retrial.
Supporters unfurled banners reading ‘retrial’ as they left the court, and Hakamada’s lawyers expressed hope that the new trial would deliver justice.
The death penalty is still carried out by hanging in Japan, which is the only major industrialized democracy other than the United States to retain capital punishment.
The death penalty still enjoys broad public support, and debate on the issue is rare. Supporters of Hakamada say that nearly 50 years of detention, mostly in solitary confinement with the ever-present threat of execution, took a heavy toll on his mental health.
Amnesty International welcomed Monday’s ruling as a ‘long-overdue chance to deliver some justice,’ and urged prosecutors not to appeal the decision.