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Did Texas execute an innocent man? Film revisits a haunting question.

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Texans will have an opportunity to revisit a question that should haunt anyone who believes in the integrity of our criminal justice system: Did our state execute an innocent man? 
The new film “Trial by Fire” tells the true story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was sentenced to death for setting a fire to his home in Corsicana that killed his three young daughters in 1991. The film is based on an investigative story by David Grann that appeared in the New Yorker in 2009, five years after Willingham was executed over his vociferous protestations of innocence.
In my experience of serving 8 years on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and 4 years as a state district judge in Travis County, the Willingham case stands out to me for many of the same reasons it stood out to filmmaker Edward Zwick, who calls it a veritable catalogue of everything that’s wrong with the criminal justice system and, especially, the death penalty. False testimony, junk science, a jailhouse informant, and ineffe…

Iwao Hakamada Freed From Death Row In Japan After Record 48 Years

Iwao Hakamada
Iwao Hakamada
TOKYO (AP) — The world's longest-serving death row inmate was freed Thursday by a Japanese court that found investigators had likely fabricated evidence in the murder case that put the former pro boxer behind bars for nearly half a century.

The Shizuoka District Court suspended the death sentence and ordered a retrial for 78-year-old Iwao Hakamada, who had been convicted in the 1966 murder of a family and was sentenced to death in 1968. More than 45 of his 48 years in prison have been on death row, making Hakamada the longest-serving such inmate, according to Guinness World Records.

Hours later, Hakamada walked out of the Tokyo Detention Center, escorted by his sister as dozens of media and supporters waited outside. Hakamada briefly looked at the crowd and got inside a car without speaking.

Hakamada was not executed because of a lengthy appeals process. It took 27 years for the Supreme Court to deny his first appeal for a retrial. He filed a second appeal in 2008, and the court finally ruled in his favor on Thursday.

"It is unbearably unjust to prolong detention of the defendant any further," said presiding judge Hiroaki Murayama in a ruling statement. "The possibility of his innocence has become clear to a respectable degree."

Hakamada was convicted of killing a company manager and his family and setting fire to their central Japan home, where he was a live-in employee.

The court said Thursday that DNA analysis obtained by Hakamada's lawyers suggested that investigators had fabricated evidence. Blood stains detected on five pieces of clothing, which investigators said were worn by the culprit during the crime, did not match the DNA of Hakamada, and trousers that prosecutors submitted as evidence were too small for Hakamada and did not fit when he tried them on.

Shizuoka District deputy chief prosecutor Takashi Nishitani said the ruling was unanticipated and that prosecutors would discuss whether to appeal to a higher court.

The court's order for a retrial makes Hakamada only the sixth death row inmate to get a retrial in Japan's history of postwar criminal justice. Four were acquitted in their retrials, while the fifth inmate's case is still pending.

"We finally tore down the wall of retrial," said Katsuhiko Nishijima, head of the defense team. "We will challenge the court decisions, as well as police and prosecutors that have denied our appeals so many times."

Thursday's ruling underscores Japan's much-criticized closed interrogations, which rely heavily on self-confession. Hakamada had confessed in a closed interrogation that lasted 20 days.

"If ever there was a case that merits a retrial, this is it," said Amnesty International in a statement, saying questions over Hakamada's conviction based on a forced confession and the use of evidence must be answered. "The Japanese authorities should be ashamed of the barbaric treatment Hakamada has received."

Nonetheless, Hideko Hakamada, 81, who devoted more than half of her life to the legal battle on her brother's behalf, said she was happy he is finally free.

"I just want to praise him for enduring all these years," she said, trying to hold back tears and a smile at the same time. "Forty-seven years is an awfully long time."

Source: AP, March 27, 2014


World's longest-serving death row inmate freed in Japan

TOKYO — A man believed to be the world’s longest-serving death row inmate walked free from jail Thursday after decades in solitary confinement, in a rare about-face for Japan’s rigid justice system.

A slightly unsteady-looking Iwao Hakamada, 78, emerged from the Tokyo prison with his campaigning sister after Shizuoka District Court in central Japan ordered a fresh trial over the grisly 1966 murder of his boss and the man’s family.

Presiding judge Hiroaki Murayama said he was concerned that investigators could have planted evidence to win a conviction almost half a century ago as they sought to bring closure to a crime that had shocked the country.

“There is a possibility that key pieces of evidence have been fabricated by investigative bodies,” Murayama said in his ruling.

Shizuoka prosecutors, who have three days to appeal the decision, told Japanese media that the court’s decision was “unexpected”.

Hakamada is the sixth person since the end of World War II to receive a retrial after having a death sentence confirmed, and his case will bolster opponents of capital punishment.

Of the past five former death-row inmates who received retrials in Japan, four were subsequently cleared. Higher courts threw out a retrial motion for the fifth prisoner, although his lawyers have submitted a fresh request for a retrial with new evidence.

After his arrest, Hakamada initially denied accusations that he robbed and killed his boss, the man’s wife and their two children before setting their house ablaze.

But the former boxer, who worked for a bean-paste maker, later confessed following what he subsequently claimed was a brutal police interrogation that included beatings.

He retracted his confession, but to no avail, and the supreme court confirmed his death sentence in 1980.

Prosecutors and courts had used blood-stained clothes, which only emerged a year after the crime and his arrest, as key evidence to convict Hakamada.

The clothes did not fit him, his supporters said. The blood stains appeared too vivid for evidence that was discovered so long after the crime. Later DNA tests found no link between Hakamada, the clothes and the blood stains, his supporters said.

But the now-frail Hakamada remained in solitary confinement on death row, regardless.

His supporters and some lawyers, including the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, have loudly voiced their doubts about the evidence, the police investigations and the judicial logic that led to the conviction.

Even one of the judges who originally sentenced Hakamada to death in 1968 has said he was never convinced of the man’s guilt, but could not sway his judicial colleagues who out-voted him.

Japan has a conviction rate of around 99% and claims of heavy-handed police interrogations persist under a long-held belief that a confession is the gold standard of guilt.

The decision to grant Hakamada a retrial came as Amnesty International issued its annual review of reported executions worldwide, which showed Japan killed eight inmates in 2013, the ninth-largest national tally in the world.

Hakamada’s sister Hideko, 81, who has passionately campaigned for a retrial for decades, thanked dozens of supporters who gathered in front of the court house.

“Everyone, really, really thank you,” she said through a loud speaker in front of hordes of journalists and supporters. “This happened thanks to all of you who helped us. I am just so happy.”

Hakamada seems to have developed psychological illnesses after decades in solitary confinement, Hideko told AFP in an interview last year.

“What I am worried about most is Iwao’s health. If you put someone in jail for 47 years, it’s too much to expect them to stay sane,” Hideko said in the interview.

Amnesty International, which has championed Hakamada’s cause and says he is the world’s longest-serving death row detainee, called on prosecutors to respect the court’s decision.

“It would be most callous and unfair of prosecutors to appeal the court’s decision,” said Roseann Rife, the organization’s East Asia research director.

“Time is running out for Hakamada to receive the fair trial he was denied more than four decades ago,” she said.

Source: Agence France-Presse, March 27, 2014

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