Photo/Illutration Iwao Hakamada takes a walk in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, in November. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The Supreme Court's decision to overturn a high court ruling that rejected a request by high-profile former death row inmate Iwao Hakamada for a retrial and send the case back to the high court opens the door for a possible acquittal.

Hakamada was sentenced to death for the fatal stabbings of four members of a family in Shizuoka Prefecture in 1966. The family operated a miso business that employed Hakamada, a former professional boxer.

As fresh evidence emerged to raise serious doubts about his conviction, the Shizuoka District Court in 2014 ruled to grant him a new trial and ordered his release after nearly 48 years behind bars. But the Tokyo High Court in June 2018 overturned the retrial order.

The top court ruling dated Dec. 22 has revived the possibility that Hakamada may be given a chance to finally clear his name in a retrial.

But there is little time left for the 84-year-old potential victim of a wrongful conviction. The high court should act swiftly to ensure that he will obtain justice.

The Supreme Court’s Third Petty Bench outlined a number of points that the Tokyo High Court had failed to examine, placing special importance on five items of bloodstained clothing found in a miso tank at the company where Hakamada worked.

The clothing was found in August 1967, a year and two months after the slayings and while Hakamada was on trial.

The judges at the time accepted prosecutors' assertions that the clothing must have been worn by the perpetrator, based on a DNA examination of bloodstains that matched Hakamada's blood type.

Defense lawyers argued that the blood should have turned blackish after being immersed in miso for so long, pointing out that this was at odds with the prosecutors’ claim that bloodstains were reddish when the evidence was found. They suggested the evidence could have been planted.

The Supreme Court denounced the Tokyo High Court for deciding to reject the request for a retrial without turning to expert knowledge to delve into changes of color that can occur under such circumstances. The top court said the high court’s decision “seriously violated justice.”

However, the top court did not acknowledge the credibility of the results of 2012 DNA tests of the bloodstains, which the defense team claimed detected the DNA of another person and offered solid evidence against Hakamada’s guilt.

The top court pointed out that the DNA may have degraded or been polluted over the years.

But two of the five justices on the Third Petty Bench opposed sending the case back to the high court, arguing that a retrial should be held immediately.

They acknowledged a degree of credibility in the results of the DNA tests as well as the grave implications of the issue of the change of color of the bloodstains.

It is highly unusual for such a dissenting opinion to be expressed in a Supreme Court ruling on whether to grant a retrial.

Their opinion indicates that the death sentence, which is irreversible once carried out, was based on extremely flimsy evidence.

Prosecutors should respond to the top court ruling by scrutinizing the case afresh. They could, for example, first accept the district court’s decision to reopen the case and present their own arguments during the retrial.

Twelve years have already passed since the latest for a retrial was filed. The need for caution in granting a retrial is understandable, but the prolonged process is way too divorced from the general public’s notions of justice.

Much time was spent on arguments over whether prosecutors should disclose evidence they have not submitted to the court or whether new examinations of evidence should be conducted.

The court has failed to provide effective leadership to resolve the conflicts between the prosecution and defense.

The Supreme Court’s ruling came after all these years of wrangling between the two sides. The judicial community should engage in serious soul-searching about how the way this case has played out and damaged the credibility of the nation’s criminal justice system.

One factor behind this judiciary debacle is the lack of clear legal provisions for reopening a case. Asahi Shimbun editorials have repeatedly argued for the establishment of such rules. We feel compelled to make this argument again.

Japan and the United States are effectively the only industrial democracies that still use capital punishment. A growing number of U.S. states have moved to abolish the death penalty.

The Hakamada incident has attracted international attention as a potential case of a wrongful death penalty.

This does not constitute unfair pressure from overseas over Japan’s internal affairs. Doubts raised by the international community represent fair and sincere calls for a better criminal justice from people who respect human rights.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 27