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Retrial of 1966 murders begins, sister claims brother is innocent

A former professional boxer and death-row inmate accused of a 1966 quadruple murder in central Japan is innocent, his elderly sister said Friday, in the first hearing of his retrial that is likely to lead to his exoneration.

Iwao Hakamata, 87, was exempted from attending the retrial at the Shizuoka District Court, as his mental state has deteriorated after spending nearly half a century behind bars before new evidence led to his release in 2014.

“I will plead my brother’s innocence for him. Please grant Iwao true freedom,” 90-year-old Hideko said, appearing at the trial in his place.

Prosecutors say Hakamata is guilty, arguing in their opening statement that it was possible for him to have committed the crime at the miso shop where he was working as a live-in employee, as the suspect was likely to be someone related to the company.

Hideko Hakamata, sister of Iwao Hakamata who spent nearly half a century behind bars before new evidence led to his release in 2014, speaks to reporters in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, on Oct. 27, 2023, ahead of the first hearing of his retrial. (Kyodo)

Hakamata was arrested for killing the firm’s senior managing director, his wife and two of their children. They were found stabbed to death at their Shizuoka Prefecture home, which had burned down.

His defense team claim that Hakamata has had his life stolen from him and that the responsibility lay not just with the investigative authorities, but also with his counsel and judges.

“What really needs to be tried in this retrial is our country’s judicial system, which brought about false charges,” the defense said.

In deciding his exemption from appearing in court, Presiding Judge Koshi Kunii said Hakamata “still has symptoms associated with detention” based on his doctor’s diagnosis.

It is the first such case in which a surviving defendant has been exempt from attending hearings of their retrial, according to his defense team.

It is likely that Hakamata will be acquitted, as the criminal procedure law says that a retrial will be opened if there is “clear evidence to find the accused not guilty.”

Photo taken Oct. 27, 2023, shows a courtroom at the Shizuoka District Court where the first hearing of a retrial for former professional boxer Iwao Hakamata, who spent nearly half a century behind bars before new evidence led to his release in 2014, is being held the same day. (Pool photo)(Kyodo)

He initially confessed to the killings during intense interrogation but pleaded not guilty at his trial, where he was indicted for murder, robbery and arson.

His death sentence was finalized in 1980 based on a ruling that blood on five clothing items found in a miso tank 14 months after the murder matched the blood types of the victims and Hakamata.

The retrial comes after the Tokyo High Court, which was ordered by the Supreme Court in 2020 to re-examine its 2018 decision not to reopen the case, reversed course and ordered the retrial in March, citing the unreliability of the main evidence used.

The high court said there was a strong possibility that the five pieces of blood-stained clothing that Hakamata allegedly wore during the incident had been planted by investigators in the tank of miso soybean paste in which they were found.

Prosecutors argue there was no basis for fabricating the evidence and plan to question a forensic scientist.

The Shizuoka District Court put aside five days for the hearings but proceedings are unlikely to conclude by the end of this year.

It is the fifth time in postwar Japan that a retrial has been finalized for a case in which the death penalty had been given. The four previous cases all resulted in acquittals in the 1980s.

Related coverage:

1st hearing for 1966 Japan murder retrial set for October 27

Prosecutors plan to prove guilt at 1966 Japan murder retrial

Prosecutors to seek conviction at retrial of 1966 Japan murder

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