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The Consequences of Wrongfully Convicting the Longest Serving Death Row Inmate

Iwao Hakamada, a man widely believed to be the world’s longest serving death row inmate, may have been serving time for nothing at all.  On March 27, 2014, the Shizouka District Court in Japan suspended his sentence because new evidence suggests that he was wrongfully convicted.  Mr. Hakamada was sentenced to death in 1968 for murder, but new DNA evidence points to his innocence, leading many to believe that his original conviction was based on falsified evidence.  The Court released Hakamada from the Tokyo Detention House after his petition for a retrial was granted.  To date, Hakamda has served nearly 50 years on death row; 30 of those years were spent in solitary confinement.  Hakamada is not the first person in Japan to be wrongfully convicted, but his case exemplifies the abhorrent consequences of the violations to the right to a fair trial.

Hakamada’s retrial represents the 6th time since 1945 that the courts in Japan have granted a retrial in a death penalty case. Incidences of wrongful convictions are being uncovered more frequently in Japan.  This may be on account of pretrial detentions in police custody, the daiyo kangoku system, which can lead to lengthy interrogations.  The United Nations Committee Against Torture has expressed concern about the system, stating that the lack of effective monitoring and reported abuse raised concerns about human rights violations.  Indeed, physical and psychological torture during interrogations  is a significant source of false confessions.  Iwao Hakamada’s interrogation lasted for 20 days, and although he confessed during the interrogation, he ultimately claimed he was innocent at trial. About half of the people on death row in Japan claim they are not guilty of all or part of the charges for which they have been convicted.

If exonerated, Hakamada has a right to compensation under Japanese and international law.  Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights protects the right to compensation, which can be satisfied in several ways.  Conferring discretion to a judicial body to determine compensation is the means that Japan has chosen to fulfill its obligations under the ICCPR.  Article 40 of the Japanese Constitution stipulates that courts will decide the amount of compensation as provided by law.  The Criminal Compensation Act further provides that the amount of compensation shall be determined after considering the length of detention, mental and physical loss suffered, and negligence by the police and prosecutors.

Hakamada’s resentencing, accompanied by public outrage, will add further ammunition to the movement for criminal justice reform in Japan.  For more information on wrongful convictions under international law, see the Death Penalty Worldwide’s post on innocence and wrongful convictions here.