Retrial sought for man hanged in 1975
The Japan Times: May 25, 2005

FUKUOKA (Kyodo) Relatives of a man executed 30 years ago for a double-slaying in Fukuoka Prefecture in 1947 have asked the Fukuoka High Court for a retrial, saying he was tortured into making a false confession.

Bearing a portrait of executed convict Takeo Nishi, Ryuji Furukawa (left), Kenjiro Ishii and Kiyoki Fujinaga enter the Fukuoka High Court on Monday to file for a retrial of the 1947 murders-for-money case known as the "Fukuoka Incident."

Takeo Nishi was executed in 1975 at age 60 for his role in the "Fukuoka Incident," the fatal shooting of a black market dealer in military uniforms and a Chinese trader, after robbing them of 100,000 yen on May 20, 1947, in the city of Fukuoka.

Lawyers for the relatives filed for the retrial Monday.

Police "extracted a confession through torture, including hanging Nishi upside down, and he was forced to sign a false confession document," said one of the lawyers, adding Nishi was convicted on the basis of false evidence.

The lawyers said Nishi was not at the scene when the murders took place, and there was no evidence he conspired with others charged in the case.

Seven people including Nishi were arrested and six were convicted.

Two of the six also filed for a retrial. They are Kenjiro Ishii, 88, and Kiyoki Fujinaga, 80.

Ishii, who admitted killing the two, was initially sentenced to hang but his punishment was later reduced to life in prison after he was given amnesty. Convicted of killing for money, he was paroled in 1989.

Video testimony Ishii provided about the torture Nishi received was submitted to the court as new evidence, the lawyers said.

Ishii's lawyers said he should be acquitted of killing for money because he killed the two men after mistakenly thinking they were trying to assault him.

Retrial a tall order in quests to prove innocence
The Japan Times: May 26, 2005
The few on death row who managed earned rare acquittals, but the hurdles span decades

Staff writer

For 33 years, Masaru Okunishi has been on death row. From behind the bars of the Nagoya Detention Center, he has pleaded his innocence and repeatedly demanded a retrial.

Bearing a portrait of executed convict Takeo Nishi, Ryuji Furukawa (left), Kenjiro Ishii and Kiyoki Fujinaga enter the Fukuoka High Court on Monday to file for a retrial of the 1947 murders-for-money case known as the "Fukuoka Incident."

His wishes were finally answered on April 5, when the Nagoya High Court granted him a retrial. Prosecutors, however, have challenged the court's decision, and the retrial is pending.

Okunishi's nightmare began in 1961 in Nabari, Mie Prefecture, at a community gathering. More than 30 people took part in the event, where women were drinking wine and men were drinking sake.

The fun, however, did not last. One woman after another began writhing in pain. In the end, five of them -- including Okunishi's wife and his lover -- would die, and 12 others would be injured from pesticide in the wine.

Okunishi was convicted of poisoning the women.

Although the Tsu District Court acquitted him in 1964, the Nagoya High Court reversed the ruling and sentenced him to hang in 1969. His death sentence was finalized by the Supreme Court in 1972.

Okunishi has been filing for retrials ever since. It was in 2002 that the Nagoya High Court started deliberating his seventh retrial plea.

The right to seek retrials is guaranteed under the Criminal Procedure Law. But only a handful of people have been fortunate enough to win one in the past few decades, according to lawyer Masato Nojima.

That, he said, was only due to the "Shiratori Incident."

The incident concerned the 1952 shooting of police officer Kazuo Shiratori in Sapporo. One of the people charged and convicted of the crime repeatedly pleaded innocence and demanded a retrial.

Although a retrial was denied, the Supreme Court ruled in 1975 that if there is reasonable doubt concerning a guilty verdict, the one convicted should be given a retrial.

"Before the Shiratori decision, there had been almost no cases that were granted retrials, because there had to be absolute proof or testimony proving innocence, like (finding) the real culprit or giving the accused a 100 percent alibi," said Nojima, one of the lawyers representing Okunishi.

After the Shiratori ruling, retrials were given to four death-row inmates -- and all four were found not guilty.

If approved, Okunishi will be the fifth death row inmate to win a retrial. But with prosecutors appealing, Nojima estimates it will take another year or two for the retrial decision to be a done deal.

"The retrial system is for those convicted to prove their innocence, to save those who have wrongly been accused," Nojima said.

Since the end of World War II, the Criminal Procedure Law has banned prosecutors from seeking retrials for people who have been acquitted (by the Supreme Court) although they can file an appeal against acquittal (by lower courts).(in complete disregard of the article 39 of the Constitution)

"Regardless of whether there is new evidence, if there is a possibility of misjudgment, retrials should be granted because that is what this law is for -- to protect the innocent," he emphasized.

But retrials remain extremely rare. The last time a death row inmate was granted a retrial was in 1986.

One of the other people seeking reversals of guilty verdicts handed down decades ago is 88-year-old Kenjiro Ishii, who filed for a retrial Monday with the Fukuoka High Court.

Ishii was arrested for the "Fukuoka Incident" in 1947, a murders-for-money case in which two clothing merchants, one of them a Chinese man, were shot dead on a street in downtown Fukuoka. Six men were convicted, and two of the six -- Ishii and Takeo Nishi -- were sentenced to death.

Ishii and Nishi were convicted of conspiracy to murder for money.

Ishii admitted shooting the two men, but claimed self-defense because it looked like one of them was reaching into his pocket for a gun.

Nishi, on the other hand, argued that he was not at the scene of the crime. Both Ishii and Nishi claimed they met each other for the first time that day and denied they were coconspirators, but the court didn't believe them.

In June 1975, Nishi was executed and Ishii was given amnesty. His sentence was reduced to life imprisonment on the same day Nishi died.

Ishii served 28 years on death row and an additional 14 in Kumamoto Prison before being paroled in 1989.

According to Ishii, a prison guard gave him a message from Nishi before he was executed.

"Nishi said, 'Ishii, you fight for the both of us till the end,' " Ishii told The Japan Times. Nishi's last request is one of the main reasons Ishii has been seeking retrial.

Those who filed for the retrial are Ishii, relatives of Nishi, and Kiyoki Fujinaga, another man convicted in the slayings.

Supporting their campaign is the family of the late Tairyu Furukawa, a Buddhist priest from Seimeizan Schweitzer Temple in Kumamoto Prefecture.

Furukawa, who died in 2000, first met Ishii and Nishi in 1952 when he was a chaplain at the Fukuoka Detention Center. After 10 years of communicating with the two men and conducting his own research into the crimes, Furukawa became convinced of their innocence and began a campaign for their retrial.

Today, the campaign is being led by surviving members of the Furukawa family.

The family, along with Sister Helen Prejean, renowned author of the award-winning book "Dead Man Walking," has been touring Japan to campaign for a retrial of the "Fukuoka Incident." On May 29, the tour will arrive in Tokyo, where they will hold a symposium under the theme, "The Death of Innocents -- the truth of the Fukuoka Incident," at YMCA Asia Youth Center in Chiyoda Ward.

The Furukawa family said Nishi's execution was a tragedy and they will continue to campaign until the court grants a retrial.

"My family finds it our duty to tell others the importance of life," said Ryuji, Furukawa's son. "(Filing for a retrial) is just the beginning. We will continue (the campaign) to tell people that the weight of one person's life is heavier than that of the whole Earth."
'Dead Man Walking' author seeks to end control of the noose


Staff writer
The death penalty is part of the same societal paradigm as war, as both are used by the state to impose control through violence, according to Sister Helen Prejean.

Helen Prejean speaks at a symposium held in Tokyo on May 28.
While 120 countries worldwide have suspended or abolished capital punishment, Japan and the United States stand alone among leading industrialized democracies in maintaining this system.

Prejean, 66, author of the highly acclaimed book "Dead Man Walking," was in Japan last week to campaign for a death penalty moratorium.

During an interview with The Japan Times, the Roman Catholic nun voiced concern over a reported increase in support for capital punishment among the Japanese public; some 81.4 percent of 2,048 adults who responded to a 2004 Cabinet Office survey said they were in favor of the death penalty, up from 79.3 in 1999.

"This says to me one thing -- that there does not yet exist a way in Japan of getting out information to the general public about the death penalty," Prejean said.
"Terrible murders have happened, the Aum (Shinrikyo cult), the schoolchildren massacre. . . . And when you have a public that's afraid, they instinctively reach out for the most harsh or the strongest possible punishment to try to be a corrective in society."

Prejean pointed out, however, that there are no clear-cut criteria for imposing the death sentence.

The U.S. Supreme Court says it "cannot be handed down to ordinary murders (but to) only the worst of the worst" -- yet nearly eight out of 10 people convicted of murdering a Caucasian are sentenced to death, she noted.

"Who the victim is makes a huge difference," Prejean said. "We see that we actually have a selective mechanism for choosing people for death."

In Japan, the Penal Code states that the death sentence can be given for crimes such as murder, insurrection and arson. In most cases, capital punishment is meted out for multiple slayings.

"I wonder if someone killed three homeless people in Tokyo, would it arouse the same passion?" Prejean asked. "Because it is how much the citizen is valued and how much fear is evoked in people (who fret that) it could happen to our family that evokes (support for) the death penalty."

Unlike the jury system in the U.S., trials in Japan are currently played out before a panel of three judges.

A new quasi-jury system will be introduced by May 2009, under which lay judges selected from among the public will sit together with professional judges in trials centering on serious crimes. This means that, at some point, the lay judges may have to hand down the death penalty.

"It will change people's attitude (toward the death penalty) when people get personally involved in a process either of conducting executions or (handing down) death (sentences)," Prejean said. "They're really being asked to do an impossible thing."

On May 28, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations held a death penalty symposium attended by professors and religious experts, including Prejean.

She discussed her own experiences in seeing six death-row inmates to their executions -- and how she believes that two of them -- featured in her new book, "The Death of Innocents" -- were in fact not guilty. Prejean pointed out that 119 death-row inmates have been found to be innocent and exonerated in the U.S. since capital punishment resumed in 1977, following a 10-year moratorium.

In Japan, four condemned inmates have been given retrials and acquitted over the past 30 years.

Hoping to be the fifth is Masaru Okunishi, whose death sentence was finalized in 1972 by the Supreme Court for mixing poison with wine at a local gathering, resulting in the death of five women, including his wife and his lover.

In April, the Nagoya High Court granted a retrial and ordered the suspension of Okunishi's execution -- a decision that has been appealed by prosecutors.

Present at the symposium was Okunishi's lawyer, Izumi Suzuki, who read aloud part of Okunishi's testimony that was submitted to the court in February.

"Looking back, I have lived in terror and agony ever since my death sentence was finalized," Suzuki read. "For 33 years, except for public holidays (when there are no executions), I spend my mornings in fear and when I am given lunch, I am relieved. Other than that, I feel like I'm living in hell. Every night as I lay down to sleep, I often hope the night would never end."

Okunishi, now 79, was 35 years old when the poisonings took place.

"Okunishi spent most of his life in solitary confinement at the Nagoya Detention Center," Suzuki told the symposium. "While living in fear of being executed, he has continued to plead his innocence. (I) now know the horror of misjudgment by the courts."

Prejean took part in another symposium Sunday entitled "The Death of Innocents -- The Truth of the Fukuoka Incident."

The 1947 Fukuoka Incident was a robbery-murder that resulted in the execution of the convicted ringleader, Takeo Nishi; a death sentence that was later reduced to life imprisonment for his accomplice, Kenjiro Ishii; and shorter terms for four others, including Kiyoki Fujinaga.

Prejean has been campaigning for a retrial in this case, together with the Furukawas, a Buddhist family that founded the Seimeizan Schweitzer Temple in Kumamoto Prefecture.

Last week, Ishii, Fujinaga and relatives of Nishi filed for a retrial at the Fukuoka High Court.

At the symposium, Fujinaga and Ishii told the audience that they were tortured into confessing by police interrogators. Both said they were told that if they didn't cooperate and confess, they would end up like Nishi -- whom they witnessed being tied and hung upside down from the ceiling, with his face pushed into a bucket of water.

New York-based photographer Toshi Kazama, who has captured images of 20 juveniles on death row in the U.S., recounted the terrifying miscarriage of justice that befell one of his subjects.

A young black man was arrested and sentenced to death for the murder of a tourist in Louisiana in 1996. The man's sister believed in his innocence and sought to find a lawyer who was willing to represent him. Two years later, the lawyer proved the man's innocence and he was released.

"No amount of regret will bring back the lives of those innocent people once they are executed," Kazama said. "As long as we continue (the death penalty), we will continue to make the same mistakes over and over again."

The Japan Times: Saturday, June 4, 2005
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