Photo/IllutrationKoji Sakahara, the eldest son of Hiromu Sakahara, expresses his joy in Otsu on July 11 over the Otsu District Court’s decision to order a retrial of the robbery and murder case in Hino, Shiga Prefecture, in the 1980s. (Hiraku Higa)

OTSU--A court here ordered a rare retrial in the case of a man who died in prison while serving a life sentence for robbery and murder after examining new evidence that suggests his confession was made under police duress.

“We find no reason to accept that Hiromu Sakahara’s confession is trustworthy and was made of his own volition,” Otsu District Court Presiding Judge Teruyuki Imai said July 11.

It is exceptionally rare to grant a retrial in such circumstances.

Sakahara was seeking a retrial to clear his name in the crime that occurred in Shiga Prefecture in the 1980s when he died in prison in 2011 at the age of 75.

“Judging from the indirect facts of the case, the presumption of guilt is highly questionable,” Imai concluded.

Prosecutors are examining the court order ahead of deciding whether to appeal it to a higher court.

Sakahara was convicted in the death of a liquor shop owner in Hino, Shiga Prefecture, and stealing cash from the 69-year-old woman's shop. The victim vanished in December 1984. Her body was discovered the following month on town land being developed for housing.

The shop's cash box was found in a forest close by in April 1985. Sakahara was arrested in March 1988. The case was labeled as “Hinocho Jiken” (Hino town incident).

Police investigators obtained a confession, which Sakahara retracted during his trial.

In June 1995, the Otsu District Court sentenced him to life imprisonment. The sentence was finalized by the Supreme Court in September 2000.

Sakahara filed a request for a retrial with the Otsu District Court in November 2001. The court turned down the request in March 2006. He then appealed the decision to the Osaka High Court.

After Sakahara died in March 2011, the high court decided to terminate procedures concerning the request for a retrial. But Sakahara's family pressed the Otsu District Court in March 2012 to grant one.

In deliberations to determine whether a retrial was merited, prosecutors for the first time disclosed photo negatives that purportedly showed Sakahara leading investigators to the site where the cash box was abandoned.

As a result of the disclosure, it was found that some of the photos used in investigation records were in fact images of Sakahara returning from the site.

In deciding to grant a retrial, the district court pointed to the possibility that Sakahara was able to take investigators to the site based on fragmentary information fed to him by police officers.

The court also examined written opinions submitted by medical specialists working on Sakahara's behalf with regard to the way the woman was slain and the condition in which the body was found.

“(In his confession), Sakahara said that he put his left hand on the back of her neck. But it does not match the woman's injuries,” the court said.

It added that the discrepancies did not permit it to accept that Sakahara's confession was "trustworthy and the basis for recognizing the facts of the case."

The court also said there is reasonable suspicion that Sakahara confessed to avoid further violence and intimidation during interrogations.