The world’s longest-serving death row inmate was freed Thursday by a Japanese court which 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 Centre, escorted by his sister as dozens of journalists and supporters waited outside. Hakamada looked briefly 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 favour Thursday.
“It is unbearably unjust to prolong detention of the defendant any further,” presiding Judge Hiroaki Murayama said in a 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 a 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.
The court’s order for a retrial makes Hakamada only the sixth death row inmate to get a retrial in Japan’s history of post-World War II 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 defence team. “We will challenge the court decisions, as well as police and prosecutors that have denied our appeals so many times.”