Washington International Law Journal


In 1975, the Japanese Supreme Court relaxed the standards governing the grant of retrials in criminal cases. Since then four death row inmates have obtained new trials and ultimate vindication through acquittals. The facts of the four cases are compelling: all involved highly publicized murders, rather harsh investigations leading to confessions that the defendants subsequently disavowed, and seemingly routine convictions followed by decades-long struggles by the convicted men to forestall their executions and secure retrials. Each of the men spent over 25 years on death row before the final determination that he had been unjustly convicted. In this article, Professor Foote examines these cases and their implications for criminal justice in Japan. While the gravity of the crimes and other circumstances render these cases—which all involve crimes committed over 35 years ago—atypical in some ways, in many other respects the cases reveal basic features in Japan's criminal justice system that continue to this day. Moreover, by providing a graphic reminder that—even in a system, such as Japan's, that prides itself on accuracy in fact-finding and provides investigators with a wise array of tools to ferret out the truth-individuals may be mistakenly convicted and executed for crimes they never committed, these cases have engendered much soul-searching by Japanese criminal justice officials, judges, attorneys and scholars and have led to numerous proposals for reform. This article explores these proposals and seeks to appraise their likely impact on Japan's criminal justice system.

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