Juan Ignacio Blanco  


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Classification: Mass murderer
Characteristics: Poisoner
Number of victims: 5
Date of murders: March 28, 1961
Date of arrest: April 3, 1961
Date of birth: 1926
Victims profile: Five women, including his wife
Method of murder: Poisoning by mixing pesticide in their wine
Location: Kuzuo, Nabari city, Mie, Japan
Status: Acquitted 1964. Sentenced to death 1969

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Japan: A 81 year-old person waiting for the execution of capital punishment for the past 43 years

7 September 2007

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has received information regarding the case of Mr. Masaru Okunishi, aged 81 years who is facing capital punishment and waiting for the Supreme Court's decision for execution. Okunishi is accused of having poisoned to death five women in his village in 1961.

Okunishi who was acquitted at the first instance was later sentenced to death in appeal allegedly on a set of false forensic evidence. There were a series of appeals in which the finding of guilt was overturned and confirmed. As of now Okunishi is waiting the execution of his sentence after the order staying his execution and retrial was reversed by the Nagoya High Court.

Case details:

Mr. Masaru Okunishi is from Kuzuo, a remote mountain village in Nabari city of Mie prefecture. It is alleged that on March 28, 1961 Okunishi poisoned to death five women by mixing pesticide in their wine.

Kuzuo being a remote village, the authorities suspected that the poisoning was deliberate and that one of the villagers is responsible for the incident. Okunishi, a farmer, who had carried the wine from the house of the local community chief to the community centre, was charged with the crime. Okunishi was investigated and had to endure over three days of prolonged and severe interrogation.

It is alleged that Okunishi being unable to endure the interrogation any further, allegedly confessed the crime on the night of April 2, 1961 and accordingly he was placed under arrest on April 3.

Once Okunishi was arrested the villagers immediately turned against Okunishi. It is alleged that the villagers soon started spreading rumors against Okunishi suggesting his guilt and wanted Okunishi to be punished at the earliest.

There was no material evidence or eyewitness available to connect Okunishi and the crime alleged against him. The only piece of evidence was a wine stopper found at the community centre which allegedly had Okunishi's teeth marks.

Several villagers who wished to solve the case immediately, made statements before the prosecutor and testified that there was no person who could approach the wine secretly before the incident other than Okunishi.

The case was tried at the Tsu District Court and the court acquitted Okunishi in 1964. The court while acquitting Okunishi, found that the witness statements were inconsistent and thus suspicious. The court also opined that the evidences were to be suspected as the result of 'extraordinary efforts' of the prosecutors to prove Okunishi's guilt.

The confession statement allegedly made by Okunishi, according to the court, was unnatural, unreasonable and thus unreliable to prove the motive, preparations and further the feasibility of the crime. The teeth-marks allegedly found on the wine bottle stopper were held as not conclusive as the forensic test conducted on the stopper was not good enough to prove Okunishi's identity.

The prosecution appealed to the Nagoya High Court. The High Court, while holding that the circumstantial evidence was sufficient to prove Okunishi's guilt reversed the finding of the trial court and convicted Okunishi in 1969 and sentenced him for capital punishment.

Holding Okunishi guilty for murder, the court said that given the circumstances of the case, Okunishi had enough opportunity to poison the wine. The court adopted a process of elimination of other possibilities and held that Okunishi is the only possible person who could have committed the crime.

The High Court relied upon the forensic evidence regarding the wine bottle stopper. New forensic evidences produced by three scientists allegedly proved the marks on the stopper as matching with Okunishi's dental structure [Black 3 Test]. Though the court relied upon the result of these tests to find Okunishi guilty of the offense, the result of the tests was later found to be false and even fabricated.

Okunishi appealed against the finding of the High Court to the Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal and confirmed the sentence and punishment in 1972.

Starting from 1972 Okunishi, petitioned for retrial four times, which were all dismissed. In 1973 the Japan Federation of Bar Associations (JFBA) formed the 'Nabari Case Committee' to help Okunishi to find justice. When the Nagoya High Court dismissed Okunishi's fourth application for retrial the JFBA helped Okunishi to file a fifth application for retrial at the same court.

Professor Habu of Japan University, using the new forensic methods, proved "Black 3 Tests" to be unscientific and concluded that it was impossible to identify the mark on the wine stopper as that belonging to Okunishi. In 1993, the High Court dismissed the application on the ground that new evidence was not enough to vindicate Okunishi's guilt. The Supreme Court, while acknowledged that the value of "Black 3 Tests" had been rebutted to a great extent, yet dismissed Okunishi's the appeal in 1997.

In April 2005, in his seventh retrial challenge, Okunishi finally got an affirmative decision by the Nagoya Appeal Court. In his application, Okunishi submitted new evidences to be considered in the case. One of the new evidence was in fact clearly proving that the pesticide which was allegedly used by Okunishi to poison the wine was not the one that he had allegedly confessed to the investigators. Other important contentions were that it is impossible for Okunishi to open the bottle as allegedly confessed by him.

The court while deciding this appeal raised serious concerns upon the evidence relied upon to convict Okunishi. The court ordered a retrial and stayed the execution of the death sentence.

However, this order was reversed by a different panel of the same court in 2006. It is against this finding Okunishi has appealed at the Supreme Court, which is pending consideration of the court as of now.

Background information:

This case symbolically shows several problems of the Japanese criminal justice system.

Although Article 336 of the Japanese Cord of Criminal Procedure prescribes the principle of a presumption of innocence, the conviction rate in Japan is more than 99%. Even if a defendant is acquitted, the prosecutor has power to appeal on the claim of an error in the finding of the facts. Thus, while having had affirmative decision twice, Okunishi has been in death row more than 40 years.

Interrogation and pre-trial detention is a serious cause of wrongful conviction in Japan. A large number of the convictions on criminal trials are based on confessions. Once arrested, suspects are usually detained for 23 days under the control of police authority and obliged to face prolonged interrogation in a confined rooms. It is often alleged that unacceptable means, including psychological torture are widely used during interrogation.

The UN Human Rights Committee as well as the UN Committee against Torture expressed deep concern regarding the current practices of pretrial detention and interrogation in Japan and strongly recommended reforms including employing electronic monitoring systems during interrogation. However, no clear attempts to change the current practices have been employed so far in Japan.

The courts generally tend to believe evidences produced by the prosecution and often give more weight to such evidence to convict an accused, rather than approaching such evidence with caution. In particular, the courts tend to rely excessively on confessions.

The prosecution is often accused of non production of exculpatory evidence and under the current legal and practical frame work; it is difficult for a contesting defense to unearth such evidences. [Exculpatory evidence is the evidence favorable to the defendant in a criminal trial, which clears or tends to clear the defendant of guilt. In many countries such as the United States, if the police or prosecutor has found such evidence, he/she must disclose it to the defendant. The prosecution's failure to disclose exculpatory evidence can result in the dismissal of a case. The opposite is inculpatory evidence, which tends to prove a person's guilt.]

Such practice probably explains the 99% conviction rate in criminal cases in Japan. This is a matter of concern in Japan and also among the international community that is interested in the current legislative developments in Japan.

In Okunishi's case the exculpatory evidence was not disclosed in the court, which has apparently denied Okunishi a fair trial. This must be a serious concern for any court while dealing a criminal case where the result of the trial might end-up limiting a person's freedom or even sentencing a person for capital punishment.


A First: Japan's High Court Accepts Amicus From U.S. Law School Clinic

The Supreme Court of Japan recently accepted its first amicus brief from an American legal organization -- The Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.

The center's brief marks the first time, as well, that it has sought to educate a foreign court on the subject of wrongful convictions.

The Japanese high court is reviewing the case of Masaru Okunishi, an 81-year-old man who has been claiming his innocence from death row for almost 40 years.

The center's brief was filed through Okunishi's counsel, Izumi Suzuki, who asked the center to write the amicus brief.

In 1961, Okunishi was accused of having poisoned to death five women in his village, including his wife, by mixing pesticide in their wine.

Okunishi, a farmer, had carried the wine from the house of the local community chief to the community center. After facing more than 49 hours of police interrogation -- not excessively long by Japanese standards -- Okunishi confessed to the crime. He was acquitted at his first trial. Prosecutors subsequently appealed, and, using forensic evidence that his attorneys now maintain was false, obtained Okunishi's conviction and death sentence in 1969. The Japanese Supreme Court affirmed his death sentence in 1972.

In 2005, in Okunishi's seventh bid for a retrial, his lawyers presented new forensic evidence suggesting that their client could not have poisoned the wine that killed the women.

A Nagoya High Court granted Okunishi a retrial and stayed his execution. Prosecutors appealed and a second High Court reinstated the conviction and death sentence, finding that Okunishi's confession was voluntary and reliable. The case is now pending before the Supreme Court.

In its amicus brief, the center argued that the high court's decision to deny Okunishi's bid for a new trial was based on mistaken understandings of false confessions and asked the Supreme Court of Japan to grant him a new trial.

Japanese authorities can learn much from America's experience with false confessions, said Steven A. Drizin, the Center's legal director and a leading authority on false confessions.

In the past five years, the number of American states that have required electronic recordings of some or all interrogations has more than quadrupled (from two to nine) and preventing false confessions has been one of the main impetuses for this reform, according to Drizin.

False and coerced confession evidence has played a role in many of the cases in which the Center has been involved, and, according to the Innocence Project, was instrumental in approximately 25 percent of the 216 DNA exonerations to date.

The center has called for a variety of reforms in criminal cases, most notably the mandatory electronic recording of custodial interrogations, and it has filed amicus briefs in appellate courts throughout the United States on confession-related issues.

In recent years, the Japanese criminal justice system has also been rocked with numerous false confessions, Drizin noted, explaining that these false confessions have been blamed on Japan's excessive reliance on confession evidence to gain convictions. Japanese law enforcement authorities, who have a 99 percent conviction rate, rely on exceedingly long interrogations and psychological coercion to obtain confessions, he added.

The center, part of Northwestern University School of Law's Bluhm Legal Clinic, was founded in the wake of an unprecedented conference at Northwestern. The 1998 conference featured the largest ever gathering of exonerated death row inmates. Since the Center's inception, its attorneys, staff and law students have played a role in exposing numerous wrongful convictions.

Drizin and false confession expert Richard Leo published "The Problem of False Confessions in the Post-DNA World" in the North Carolina Law Review, a study that documented and analyzed 125 proven false confessions in the United States, most of which had occurred in the previous decade. It is the largest single study ever of false confessions.



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