THE HIGASHI-SUMIYOSHI CASE
1995 ~ Now
False Arson, Coerced Confessions, and Wrongful Convictions in Japan.
Retrial Granted: (Again!) October 23, 2015
The Higashi-Sumiyoshi Case
A Case of Voluntary Confessions?
Michael H. Fox
Originally Published in Kansai Time Out Magazine
Constitution of Japan: Article 38:2 Confession made under compulsion, torture or threat, or after prolonged arrest or detention shall not be admitted in evidence.
July 22: Fire Occurs
Sep 10 Confessions/Arrest
Guilty: Life imprisonment (Osaka District Court)
When the postwar occupation forces were designing the present Japanese constitution, one of their goals was to broaden the sphere of rights encompassing the individual citizen. A key beneficiary of these rights was to be the criminally accused. Those accused of capital crimes would be presumed innocent until proven guilty, coerced confessions would not be admitted as evidence, and if found innocent, the defendant could not to be put in double jeopardy-the prosecution would forfeit the right to appeal decisions of “not guilty.”
Many articles of the new constitution were welcomed, some were tolerated and some abhorred. To the judicial and political elite , these particular rights which protected the criminally accused clearly fell into the latter category. And over fifty years later, things still remain as they did before the war. A recent incident in Kansai demonstrates the contemporary treatment of the criminally accused, and the gap between legal theory and actual practice.
On July 22, 1995, Shimada Tatsuhiro, a 34 year old technician, stopped at a gasoline stand and filled the tank of his van before arriving at his home in Osaka`s Higashi-Sumiyoshi ward. Some ten minutes later he smelled smoke and noticed a small fire in the garage under his van. He quickly searched for an extinguisher while his wife called the fire department. Some neighbors also lent assistance. But the tiny fire grew and spread. The couple’s 11 year old daughter, who at the time was in the first floor bath, tried to escape but was overcome by smoke and died of asphyxiation.
Both the police and fire departments carried out detailed investigations. Japan has a proportionately high number of arson-for-insurance fraud incidents and so investigation is a routine matter. The fire itself did not arouse the suspicion of the authorities, but the circumstances of the family probably did. Police soon learned that the man and woman of the house did not share the same name nor were they legally married. They had lived together for six years-a common law marriage-and their two children were from the woman`s (Ms. Aoki's) previous marriage. Police also discovered that Mr. Shimada was a zainichi Korean (whose real family name was Boku)and that Ms. Aoki had life insurance policies on both of her children.
Life insurance coverage for children is quite usual in Japan, most couples carry it as a matter of course. The usual coverage for minors through major programs is five million yen which can be doubled to ten million yen for a nominal premium. The little girl who died was insured for fifteen million yen, somewhat above the national norm.
The investigation of the fire did not seem to produce any suspicious findings. If it had, the police would have issued arrest warrants right away. Perhaps something about this case annoyed their conformist sensibilities, particularly the irregular family circumstances. At seven a.m on Sunday, September 10, some six weeks after the tragedy, a squad of detectives arrived at the couple`s new domicile and requested both Boku and Aoki to come down to the police station for voluntary questioning. Each was taken to a separate station. This questioning soon turned into an interrogation- the police immediately demanded that each confess to arson, murder, and insurance fraud. When Boku refused, his interrogators became violent- they hit his head, kicked his knees and applied choke holds. After 14 hours of continued verbal and physical abuse, police lost patience with Boku and fabricated a story saying his eight year old stepson had already confessed to seeing him start the fire. They reminded him that Japan has a death penalty, and if he cooperated, he would be spared from the noose. In a state of despair, Boku broke down and signed a confession admitting to the charges.
Ms. Aoki received the same treatment. Detectives put their mouths to her ear and screamed a torrent of insults and abuse further aggravating her sense of guilt and grief over her deceased daughter. “You couldn’t save your daughter so you are responsible for killing her. You are a murderer.” By eight o’clock that evening, a psychologically broken Aoki signed a similar confession.
The next day, both were visited by lawyers. Both denied the charges, Aoki in tears.
Confessions: theory and fact.
This case illustrates many problems of the Japanese policing, particularly the function and the public’s perception of confessions. A survey of various reference books touching on the Japanese legal system uncovers some disturbing commentaries which all but heap praise upon the present system. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Japan asserts that incarceration and long interrogation of suspects without the presence of legal council, a condition unimaginable in other industrialized countries, enables the police to “develop a human relationship with the suspect, to the end of obtaining a confession or, in many cases, multiple confessions.(p, 275)
Assertions such as these are frequently made by western scholars of the Japanese criminal justice system. Such misinformed is very, very scary. In a recent issue of this magazine (KTO# 285 Nov 2000), a foreigner who had problems with the law advises, If you did it, confess. If you didn’t`t fight.” Most readers probably paid scant attention to this remark, finding it painfully obvious. But because ordinary Japanese are oblivious to law and obedient to authority, police are free to act as they please.
While Boku and Aoki were undergoing voluntary questioning, both had the right to stand up and walk out. But both were unaware of their rights and meek in the face of authority.
As the constitution of Japan prohibits conviction based solely on confession, prosecutors sought other evidence to cement their case. The police allege that on the day of the fire, Boku stopped in at a local store and bought a simple plastic pump, the 100 yen variety used for kerosene stoves in the winter. Upon arriving at home, he parked the van, pumped out six or seven liters of gasoline, laid the pump under the van, and ignited the fire with a disposable lighter.
In order to support this story, the authorities commissioned the Scientific Criminal Investigation Laboratory, a governmental organization, to carry out a reenactment of the case. The institute is quite meticulous- it procured a similar vehicle, built a garage to the same specification as Park’s, spread seven liters of gasoline on its floor, turned on their video cameras and set the entire thing ablaze.
The results of this reenactment were problematic and digressed from the evidence left by the actual blaze. In the reenactment, the paint on the van burned evenly, and the rising smoke covered the ceiling uniformly. In the actual fire, the paint on the van burned linearly and the smoke marks were spotty and uneven. This evidence, confirmed by witnesses who gave statements to the police, points to a small fire which gradually grew, not the sudden blaze recorded by police cameras.
How then did the fire begin? According to a report drafted by Hideaki Mochizuki, a technical investigator who belongs to the Institution of Professional Engineers, the most probable cause were sparks from the air compressor which ignited gasoline that had leaked from the fuel line`s canister. Boku had overfilled the tank at the gas station and a small quantity probably escaped from a crack in the canister or other places in the fuel line. The problem with the air compressor, made by subsidiary manufacturer, was so widespread that Honda and other manufacturers issued a recall in 1991.
Defense attorneys have challenged other allegations made by the police.They called as a witness, the owner of the small store where Boku is alleged to have bought the plastic kerosene pump used to spread the gasoline. The owner testified that he had no recollection of Boku ever purchasing such a pump nor, for that matter, any customer ever requesting one in the middle of the summer.
After nearly forty hearings apiece for both Aoki and Boku in separate trials, the Osaka District Court issued judgement. On March 30, 1999, it sentenced Boku to life imprisonment. Some six weeks later, it sentenced Aoki to the same.
AN ATTEMPT AT EXPLANATION
The lingering question in this case is Why? Why would police and prosecutors be so eager to build a case against Aoki and Boku? And why were the judges persuaded so easily. This case shows a side of police work which is not well acknowledged in the public`s eye. In Japan or anywhere else, law enforcement authorities are considered to be protectors of the peace, a force against crime and social disorder. But to those of us who study and work within the system, the grim realities of police work are hardly a secret. In many cases, the struggle to convict a suspect has no more ethical foundation than a soccer match: two teams, prosecution and defense, compete against each other with one objective --victory. Moral categories of good and evil, right and wrong, guilty or innocent are altogether unimportant. The judges decision, (99.5% of suspects in Japan are found guilty), certifies the result and the game is validated for the police and prosecution, and rather unfortunately, in the eye of the public.
In any trial, it is difficult to elucidate all the factors which motivate and influence both the procedures and the players. It is quite possible that police and prosecutors have another ulterior motive in this case. I asked defense attorney Saito Tomoyo if discrimination has been playing a role. Park had never revealed his Korean identity to his wife`s father,she explained, " and after both were arrested, Aoki's father, upon hearing the name Boku for the first time, asked a detective who he was. The response was 'Oh, you didn't know your daughter was bedding down with a Korean?."
THE CASE CONTINUES
After the sentences of life imprisonment were handed down, the defense teams immediately appealed to the Osaka High Court. Though the Japanese constitution guarantees the right to a speedy trial the current appeals cases did not begin until July, 2000, 14 months after initial sentencing. In an opening statement before the court, defense attorney Ogawa Kazue attacked the validity of the confessions. “What would an ordinary middle class couple without financial difficulties have to gain from the amount of insurance money? How could they know that fire would spread and the smoke rise with the necessary precision to kill their daughter? If this was in fact a conspiracy, is it really possible that an ordinary couple could engineer a master crime in which the evidence points to an accident? A plan which specified details of how and when to call the fire department, what lies to feed the police, what belongings to remove, and where to live after the building was destroyed?”
Let us hope the high court deliberates these questions and the many other contradictions in this case before it issues a decision.
(SIDE BAR) Problematic Crimes Involving Confessions
Kabutoyama Case (Hyogo 1974) Two mentally impaired children at an institution were found drowned. After 16 days of morning to evening interrogation, a young governess confessed to "unconscious murder." She was soon released, sued the police, and was vengefully rearrested and tried four times before final acquittal in October of 1999.
Midori-so Case (Oita 1981) After insisting on his innocence, a young man confessed to rape and murder of his neighbor while "sleepwalking." He was sentenced to life imprisonment in the first trial and declared innocent in the appeals case.
Sayama Case (Saitama 1962) A case that became a rallying symbol for anti-discrimination groups, a young Burakumin confessed to rape and murder. The confession included authorship of a well written ransom letter-highly problematic since the accused was only semi-literate Burakumin. He was released from prison after serving 32 years, in 1994. The case is being appealed.
Kaizuka Case (Osaka 1979) Five men, four of whom were minors, confessed to rape and murder. All pleased innocent in court and but were sentenced to serve between ten and eighteen years in prison. After finding that police used undue "physical and psychological coercion," the court declared four of the defendants innocent in 1986, the fifth in 1989. Ten years later, the defendants were awarded 12.6 million in compensation.
Supporters cheer court order to retry couple
convicted of 1995 arson-murder
Lawyers hold banners announcing a high court decision to retry Keiko Aoki and Tatsuhiro Boku, in Kita Ward, Osaka, on Oct. 23, 2015. (Mainichi)
OSAKA -- The Osaka High Court on Oct. 23 confirmed a lower court order to retry a man and woman convicted of the 1995 arson-murder of the woman's young daughter, triggering cheers from the couple's family and supporters.
Keiko Aoki, 51, and Tatsuhiro Boku, 49, are both serving life sentences for setting a fire that killed Aoki's then 11-year-old daughter in Higashisumiyoshi Ward, Osaka. According to her lawyers, when Aoki received the news at Wakayama Prison, she said, "Good. I'm relieved. (The high court) recognized the scientifically-proven facts and made a just decision."
A lawyer also passed the news on to Boku, who is serving at Oita Prison.
In an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun in August this year, Boku said, "I am innocent. I am sure of our victory." He spoke in a mild tone, sometimes smiling. Asked how he felt 20 years after his arrest, he said, "I have a large hole in my heart for these 20 years."
Regarding how he felt waiting for the high court's decision, he said, "It's been three years (since the Osaka District Court ruling), but I feel good now."
As for what he would do if the high court supported the district court's ruling and he was released from prison, he said, "I want to go to the site of the fire, put my hands together in prayer and find closure."
He also said, "I want to study to be an electrician again and get certified as a first-class architect."
Before the high court decision, Aoki wrote in a letter to a Mainichi Shimbun reporter, "As long as the court makes a common-sense decision, the only possible outcome is a retrial."
She wrote that the three-and-a-half years of the high court's deliberations on the appeal of the district court decision were "grueling," and that she wants to rejoin her son and parents. At the same time, she wrote, "I am uneasy about whether I can return to society after 20 years."
On Oct. 23, the high court also ordered Aoki's and Boku's sentences halted at 2 p.m. on Oct. 26, allowing them to go free. A disappointed-looking Aoki told a lawyer, "I won't be in time for my son's birthday on the 24th. But I want to hold a two-days-late birthday party for him."
Prosecutor Kazuo Sakakibara said of the ruling, "It is very regrettable that our appeal was not successful. We will look at this new ruling and respond appropriately."
Lawyer for Aoki and Boku, Yayoi Norii said, "It was a perfect ruling that granted every part of our argument. It has become clear that this was a false conviction. We strongly call on the prosecutors to make the high court's decision final and quickly begin the process for a retrial."
Osaka high court endorses retrial for 1995 arson-murder case
OSAKA (Kyodo) -- The Osaka High Court endorsed on Friday a lower court decision to grant a retrial to a couple in an arson-murder case in Osaka in 1995 and decided to suspend their life imprisonment sentences at the beginning of next week.
The high court turned down prosecutors' objection to the March 2012 district court decision on the retrial for the mother of an 11-year-old girl and the woman's common-law husband who were sentenced to life imprisonment for killing the girl.
Prosecutors immediately objected to the high court decision and are now considering filing a special appeal with the Supreme Court.
If the retrial is held, it will be the 10th since 1975 for a case in which defendants were sentenced to death or life imprisonment, according to the Supreme Court.
The top court had rejected the couple's appeal in 2006, endorsing a lower court ruling that Keiko Aoki, 51, and Tatsuhiro Boku, 49, set their house on fire in July 1995 in a bid to kill Aoki's daughter Megumi and collect life insurance money.
They pleaded not guilty in the trial, although they had at one point admitted to the allegations during questioning by police and prosecutors.
The two filed a plea for a retrial in 2009.
Their defense lawyers conducted an experiment to simulate the fire and claimed it was accidentally caused by a bathtub water heater and gasoline leaking from a car in the garage of the house.
After lodging the objection to the district court decision on the retrial, prosecutors conducted their own experiment but failed to reverse the defense claim.
In Friday's decision, the high court concluded the fire could have been accidental and that Boku's confession of arson has lost credibility.
Aoki at a prison in Wakayama near Osaka was quoted by her lawyer as saying, "I thank the court for issuing a righteous decision recognizing a scientifically proven truth."
Boku, imprisoned in the southwestern prefecture of Oita, also welcomed the high court's "best decision," his lawyer said.
October 23, 2015 (Mainichi Japan)
Osaka couple granted retrial over child’s 1995 death by fire
The Yomiuri Shimbun
October 23, 2015
The Yomiuri Shimbun
OSAKA — The Osaka High Court on Friday upheld a lower court decision and accepted the appeals for a retrial by a mother and her common-law husband who are currently serving life imprisonment terms for killing her 11-year-old daughter by deliberately setting fire to their house in 1995.
The court decided Friday to suspend the execution of their sentences at 2 p.m. Monday and allow their release.
“The possibility of spontaneous combustion cannot be ruled out in this case, and their confessions cannot be said to be highly credible,” Osaka High Court Judge Masaaki Yoneyama said in the immediate appeal trial ruling.
Yoneyama rejected the prosecution’s appeal that the two committed arson-murder: “There is now reasonable doubt regarding the guilty verdicts that were finalized for them.” Prosecutors protested to the high court and said they are considering appealing to the Supreme Court.
The convicted persons are Keiko Aoki, 51, and her common-law husband Tatsuhiro Boku, 49. Their house in Osaka’s Higashi-Sumiyoshi Ward burned to the ground on the evening of July 22, 1995.
Aoki, her 8-year-old son and Boku escaped the fire uninjured, but Aoki’s 11-year-old daughter Megumi, who was taking a bath at the time, apparently failed to escape and was killed in the fire.
Aoki and Boku had put life insurance coverage on Megumi three years before the fire and claimed insurance money after the incident, but did not receive it because the Osaka prefectural police arrested them in September 1995. Aoki and Boku were indicted separately for murder, arson and attempted insurance fraud.
However, in Friday’s ruling, the Osaka High Court — like the Osaka District Court — considered the results of an experiment conducted by Aoki and Boku’s defense lawyers in which they reenacted the fire to be “new evidence.” The court said gasoline may have accidentally leaked from the fuel tank opening of the car, which was in the house’s garage, where the fire started.
According to the original rulings, Aoki and Boku conspired to kill Megumi, who was a sixth-grade primary school student at the time, by fire so they could collect ¥15 million in insurance money. Boku allegedly spread gasoline on the garage floor next to the bathroom where Megumi was and then set fire to it with a lighter.
After his arrest, Boku was quoted as confessing, “I siphoned about seven liters of gas from a small van in the garage, sprinkled it on the floor and lit it.”
There was no clear physical evidence, and Aoki and Boku recanted their confessions and claimed innocence at the trials. However, the Supreme Court finalized Aoki’s and Boku’s life imprisonment sentences in 2006, following the district and high courts’ acceptance of the credibility of their confessions.
After the pair appealed for retrials, their defense lawyers conducted an experiment in 2011 in which they reenacted the fire. According to the results, vaporized fuel from the garage floor caused the bathwater heater’s pilot burner to burst into flames before all the gasoline was sprinkled on the floor.
Based on those results, the Osaka District Court decided in 2012 to hold retrials because it found it unlikely that Boku was able to sprinkle all the gasoline on the floor without receiving any burns.
The high court said in Friday’s ruling that gasoline could leak from a car’s fuel tank opening if the pressure inside increases. Such fuel leakage cases that had previously occurred with the same model of car that Boku possessed were presented by the defense lawyers in the appeal.
The court said there was a concrete and realistic possibility that 100 to 300 milliliters of gasoline could have leaked and then spontaneously caught fire. It pointed to the inspection report conducted the day after the fire, which did not ascertain that the car’s fuel tank lid was tightly closed.
Osaka high court endorses retrial for 1995 arson-murder case
OSAKA – An Osaka couple jailed for life over a 1995 arson and murder have been granted a retrial following a ruling by the Osaka High Court on Friday.
Turning down prosecutors’ objections, the court upheld a 2012 district court decision to grant the retrial and will suspend their sentences from the start of next week.
Keiko Aoki, 51, and Tatsuhiro Boku, 49, were jailed in 1995 after being found guilty of setting their house on fire in a bid to kill Aoki’s 11-year-old daughter Megumi and collect life insurance money.
They pleaded not guilty in the trial, although they had at one point admitted to the allegations during questioning by police and prosecutors.
After being sentenced to life imprisonment for killing Megumi, a top court later rejected the couple’s appeal in 2006.
Aoki and Boku filed a plea for a retrial in 2009.
In Friday’s decision, the Osaka High Court concluded the fire could have been accidental and that Boku’s confession of arson had lost credibility.
Their defense lawyers conducted an experiment to simulate the fire and claimed it was accidentally caused by a bathtub water heater and gasoline leaking from a car in their home’s garage.
After lodging an objection to the district court decision on the retrial, prosecutors conducted their own experiment but failed to reverse the defense claim.
Prosecutors immediately objected to Friday’s high court decision and are now considering filing a special appeal with the Supreme Court.
Experts say the ruling represented an irreversible trend where courts focused more on evidence with a scientific basis rather than on suspects’ confessions.
If the retrial is held, it will be the 10th since 1975 for a case in which defendants were sentenced to death or life imprisonment, according to the Supreme Court.
Speaking from prison in Wakayama, Aoki was quoted by her lawyer as saying, “I thank the court for issuing a righteous decision recognizing a scientifically proven truth.”
Boku, who is imprisoned in Oita Prefecture, also welcomed the high court’s “best decision,” his lawyer said.
In recent years, convictions have been overturned thanks to advanced DNA testing techniques allowing for a more precise identification of perpetrators.
In one case, death row inmate Iwao Hakamada, 78, was released last year after 48 years behind bars for killing four members of a family.
In that decision, presiding judge Hiroaki Murayama approved DNA test results that indicated the DNA type from bloodstains detected on five items of clothing believed to have been worn by the culprit differed from Hakamada’s.
Experts said the experiments to simulate fire in the Osaka case might not be as precise due to possible differences in temperature and other factors, but the ruling showed that they can be regarded as clear evidence to overturn previous rulings.
Couple released after retrial ordered reunites with family for first time in 2 decades
Mainichi Daily News
Following her release from prison, Keiko Aoki, left, reunites with her son in Osaka's Kita Ward, shortly after 12 a.m. on Oct. 27, 2015. (Mainichi)
OSAKA -- A woman and her common-law husband each serving a life sentence for starting a fire that killed the woman's daughter in 1995 were reunited with their respective families after their release from prison, following a court decision to reopen the case.
Keiko Aoki, 51, was released from a prison in Wakayama shortly after 2 p.m. on Oct. 26. Because her daughter Megumi Aoki -- who'd been 11 at the time of her death -- liked sunflowers, Keiko asked her defense team to prepare a yellow cardigan and hair ornament for her, both of which she wore upon her release from Wakayama Prison. She looked up at the sky and said, "I can hear my daughter saying from somewhere in the blue sky, 'I'm happy for you.'"
Accepting a bouquet of flowers from her supporters, Aoki told reporters, "I've been able to return to the world we take for granted. I want to tell my daughter, 'You know best that I didn't kill you. Thank you for looking over me to this day.'" Her eyes welled up with tears.
Aoki then headed to Osaka in a car arranged by her lawyers. During the drive, Aoki called her son, who was 8 at the time of Aoki's arrest and is now 29. "Congratulations," he told his mother. Aoki also stopped by the site of the fire that killed her daughter, which is now a parking lot, and crouched down to lay flowers where the bath, where Megumi had died, would have been. She then quietly pressed her palms together.
"I told Megumi that I was sorry I wasn't able to save her, but that I was finally able to make it here," she told reporters.
Couple released, seek early retrial in 1995 arson-murder case
October 27, 2015
By SHUNSUKE ABE/ Staff Writer
A woman and her common-law husband who spent 20 years behind bars for her daughter’s death were released from prison after a court ruled they were probably wrongly convicted of murder and arson.
Keiko Aoki, 51, and Tatsuhiro Boku, 49, were freed on Oct. 26 after the Osaka High Court rejected an appeal from prosecutors and upheld a decision to suspend their life sentences.
Three days earlier, the high court backed a lower court’s decision to grant a retrial for the couple.
“It is like I am hearing my daughter saying to me from somewhere in this blue sky, ‘Mom, I am very happy for you,’” Aoki said after she was released from a prison in Wakayama. “I want to say to her, ‘Thank you.’”
Aoki’s blouse was yellow, the color of sunflowers that her daughter, Megumi, liked.
After he left a prison in Oita the same day, Boku said: “I am speechless that I am finally free. This is like a dream, and the scenery before me looks dazzling.”
The pair was arrested on suspicion of murdering Megumi, 11, by setting fire to their home in Osaka’s Higashi-Sumiyoshi Ward in July 1995. Megumi was taking a bath when she died in the blaze.
The suspects were later indicted on arson and murder charges, and prosecutors said the motive for the crimes was to collect life insurance money from the girl’s death.
Aoki and Boku reportedly confessed to the crimes during their interrogations, but they both pleaded not guilty at their trial.
They were found guilty on both counts, and the Supreme Court finalized their life sentences in 2006.
However, the Osaka District Court in March 2012 granted a retrial of their case after examining their requests.
The Osaka High Court on Oct. 23 upheld the district court’s decision, concluding that Aoki and Boku were most likely innocent. The court cited testimonies and the defense team’s fire-simulation experiment that pointed to the strong possibility that the 1995 fire broke out accidentally, likely from gasoline that had leaked from the family car.
The Osaka High Public Prosecutors Office is expected to decide by Oct. 28 on whether to appeal the high court’s decision to the Supreme Court.
Defense lawyers pushed for an early start to the retrial.
“The prosecutors should accept the high court’s ruling, thereby allowing the retrial to get under way expediently,” one of the lawyers said.
The defense team presented the yellow blouse to Aoki when the Osaka District Court ruled in favor of the retrial in 2012.
On Oct. 27, Aoki, accompanied by her son, visited Megumi’s grave in Nara Prefecture.
After presenting sunflowers and sweets at the grave, Aoki offered a prayer to Megumi.
“I told her that we at last found out why the fire occurred and apologized to her for taking so much time,” she told reporters later.
Other convicts serving life terms have been freed while requesting a retrial.
A man convicted of murdering a girl in Tochigi Prefecture in 1990 was released after spending about 17 years behind bars. He was found innocent in a retrial in 2010.
In another case, a man was released from prison about 15 years after he was accused of murdering a Tokyo Electric Power Co. employee in 1997. He was found not guilty at his retrial in 2012.
Tatsuhiro Boku, right, reunites with his mother after his release from prison, in Osaka's Kita Ward, on the night of Oct. 26, 2015. (Mainichi)
At a press conference that began at around 4 p.m. in Osaka's Kita Ward, Aoki said, "I want to win back my innocence. I can't wait to become an innocent human being again."
Shortly after 12 a.m. on Oct. 27, Aoki reunited with her son, who had gotten off from work. She held him close and said, "I'm so happy to be able to touch my son for the first time in 20 years."
Meanwhile, Tatsuhiro Boku, 49, Aoki's common-law husband at the time of their arrest, was also released from a prison in Oita shortly after 2 p.m. on Oct. 26 wearing glasses, a black suit, a white shirt and sneakers. "I am overcome with emotion over my release. It's been 20 years since I've stepped into the outside world, and it still feels unreal, like I'm in a very distant, foreign land. It feels like a dream, as if the landscape before me is giving off a brilliant glow," he told reporters. He added, "I think that I will slowly begin to get a feel for this new freedom, but I want to emotionally prepare myself for the battle that lies ahead."
Boku then headed to Osaka by plane, and at around 8:30 p.m., reunited with his 74-year-old mother and 51-year-old sister at a press conference venue that had been set up in the city's Kita Ward. He held both women tightly in his arms, then bowed, saying, "I'm sorry to have caused you so much suffering." His mother responded through sobs, "I'm so glad you're back. I've been hanging in there with the conviction that this day would someday come."
In a subsequent press conference, Boku said, "Seeing the Osaka cityscape and breathing the Osaka air has finally given me the feeling that I've been released." He also told reporters, "I want to apologize to Megumi for not being able to save her." Boku plans to report his release to his father, who passed away in 2000.
Keiko Aoki, left, and Tatsuhiro Boku, who were released on Monday
8:17 pm, October 26, 2015
Jiji Press OITA/WAKAYAMA (Jiji Press) — A couple who were granted a retrial last week over a 1995 arson and murder of an 11-year-old girl were released from prison on Monday after a court rejected an appeal by prosecutors against its decision to suspend their indefinite terms.
The release of Keiko Aoki, the 51-year-old mother of the girl, and Tatsuhiro Boku, 49, her common law husband, from prisons in Wakayama and Oita prefectures, respectively, came 20 years after they were arrested.
Appearing before reporters in front of the Oita prison, Boku said: “After 20 years, I feel like I’m standing on foreign land far from Japan. It’s surreal.”
“I have to prepare myself for the upcoming battle,” he added.
Before the Wakayama prison, Aoki told reporters, “I feel my daughter watching me from somewhere in the blue sky and saying, ‘Mom, good for you!’”
“I want to tell her, ‘Thank you for watching me all this time,’” she continued.
In turning down the prosecutors’ appeal earlier on Monday, presiding Judge Yujiro Nakatani of Osaka High Court said, “There is an increased likelihood of them being found not guilty in a retrial.”Speech
Trial to reopen for couple convicted in death
of Osaka girl in 1995
OSAKA – Prosecutors said Wednesday they will not file an appeal against a high court decision to reopen the 1995 case of a fire in which a girl died in Osaka, adding to the chances that a couple that had been convicted of arson and murder will be acquitted.
“I feel relieved that I can move further forward,” said Boku. “I hope I’m acquitted in the retrial as soon as possible.”
The Osaka High Public Prosecutors Office said there were “unacceptable points” in the high court decision but added it would not file an appeal because the decision did not violate the Constitution or run counter to prior rulings. “We will do our best to reveal the truth in the retrial,” it said.
The prosecutors are expected to maintain that the couple are guilty, according to prosecution sources.
In the past nine similar retrials in Japan, all of the defendants were acquitted.
Aoki and Boku were arrested in September 1995 on suspicion of conspiring to pour and set fire to gasoline in the garage of Aoki’s house the previous July, killing her daughter Megumi while she was taking a bath. A ¥15 million life insurance policy had been taken out for the sixth grader.
They were found guilty at the Osaka District Court in 1999 and their convictions were finalized in 2006.
The two filed a plea for a retrial in 2009 and the district court decided in 2012 to hold a retrial, questioning the credibility of their confessions.
On Friday, the high court upheld the lower court decision and concluded that a retrial is appropriate, as the fire could have been accidental, citing an experiment conducted by the couple’s lawyers to simulate the fire.
Osaka prosecutors won’t seek appeal
October 28, 2015
OSAKA (Jiji Press) — The Osaka High Public Prosecutors Office said Wednesday that it has decided not to file an appeal with the Supreme Court against a local court decision to hold a retrial of a couple convicted of murder who were freed on Monday, 20 years after their arrests.
The decision by Osaka High Court to retry Keiko Aoki, the 51-year-old mother of the victim, who died at the age of 11, and Tatsuhiro Boku, 49, her de facto husband, is unacceptable but not necessarily unconstitutional, Kazuo Sakakibara, deputy superintending prosecutor at the Osaka office, said in a statement, explaining the reason for not appealing against it.
At the same time, Sakakibara expressed a readiness to maintain the murder charges against the couple. “We will do all we can to clarify the truth in the upcoming retrial,” he said.
Aoki visits daughter’s grave after release, wants to ‘win back’ 20 years in prison
OSAKA – On the day after her release, Keiko Aoki, 51, along with her de facto husband, Tatsuhiro Boku, 49, visited the grave of her daughter, who was killed at age 11 in a fire in 1995 for which the two were convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
The Osaka High Court on Monday ordered their release following a decision to reopen the arson-murder case.
Aoki said that she has prayed for her daughter Megumi every month on the day of her death. She had said publicly that she wanted to offer prayers at her daughter’s grave in Nara Prefecture as soon as possible, preferably immediately following her release.
Aoki was accompanied by her 29-year-old son, with whom she was reunited in the early hours of Tuesday in Osaka. He was unable to see his mother on the day of her release due to business obligations.
Dressed in black, Aoki offered sunflowers, her daughter’s favorite, at the grave site and spoke about the court’s decision through tears.
“I’m sad I couldn’t see my son grow up,” she said, and burst into tears recalling the parting with her then 8-year-old child.
“So good, it’s so good to see you; I would do anything to regain those 20 years we lost,” Aoki told her son.
“Welcome back,” he responded, embracing his mother.
Aoki walked out of prison in Wakayama Prefecture at around 2 p.m. Monday, dressed in yellow — the favorite color of her deceased daughter — and decorated her hair with a matching yellow clip.
“If the police had investigated the cause of the fire in the first place, I wouldn’t be here,” she told reporters. “I want to win those 20 years back.”
She has been separated from her son since the early morning of Sept. 10, 1995, when she went voluntarily to the police station. There, police obtained a confession that she had set her house on fire in a bid to receive insurance money.
Aoki recanted her confession before she was indicted and has since maintained her innocence.
“No matter how long they’re going to apologize to me, it will never bring the lost time back,” she said.
At a news conference in Osaka following her release, Aoki said she has mixed feelings about the court’s decision. While the Osaka District Court suspended the execution of the sentence and ordered a retrial in March 2012, she and Boku had to remain behind bars because prosecutors instantly appealed the decision to the Osaka High Court.
“I couldn’t eat and sleep, worrying I would need to face this nightmare once again,” she said. “I can’t feel relieved as I cannot be sure they’re not going to take me back to prison.”
She said she hopes to be acquitted soon and have her name cleared.
Meanwhile, when Boku, 49, was released from a prison in Oita Prefecture he was reunited with his 74-year-old mother.
The two, who also met in Osaka, regarded one another for about a minute before embracing tightly and sobbing.
“I’m so sorry for having caused so much trouble,” Boku said. “I can only believe (in good developments) and move forward.”
When he was released he was wearing a light blue striped shirt, buttoned up to the top under a black suit, with no tie.
“I’m so sorry I could not save you,” Boku said during the news conference, directing his words to Megumi Aoki. “Thank you for guarding me throughout all these years.”
Responding to reporters’ questions regarding his feelings about the deceased girl, he recalled the past tearfully.
“I arrived at a point where my fear and despair became too much for me to bear and I became helpless,” he said.
In a unique description of his emotions, he said his “heart committed suicide.”
Boku said he regretted the arson confession that led to his conviction but expressed gratitude to the lawyers and experts who “have done the utmost to help me.”
On his way to Osaka, Boku was thrilled by a sip of drip coffee prepared by one of his supporters, his first in 20 years.
“This is what real coffee tastes like,” he said.
But recalling the years he spent in prison, he said: “It will take time until I’ll be able to enjoy being free and open my heart, which has been confined during this fight in hell. But I hope each day will bring a sense of freedom, step by step.”
Last Friday, the Osaka High Court concluded the fire could have been accidental and that Boku’s confession to arson had lost credibility, endorsing a March 2012 lower court decision to grant the two a retrial.
Prosecutors objected to Friday’s high court decision and said they were considering filing an appeal with the Supreme Court.
Lessons from Osaka arson case
Japan Times Editorial
Oct 29, 2015
The retrial granted to an Osaka couple jailed for 20 years over a 1995 arson and murder has again shown that investigation authorities’ reliance on confessions rather than hard evidence can lead to false charges and wrongful convictions. It is now likely that the pair, who were released from prison this week, will be formally acquitted of the crime in the retrial process. Relevant authorities should not only get to the bottom of the crime itself but also examine why the two had been convicted despite doubts about their guilt that should have been explored in the first place.
Keiko Aoki, 51, and Tatsuhiro Boku, 49, her common-law husband, were arrested in September 1995 on suspicion of setting fire two months earlier to Aoki’s house in Osaka, and killing the woman’s 11-year-old daughter, who was taking a bath, to collect ¥15 million from a life insurance policy taken out on the girl.
Although they both were said to have confessed to the allegations at one point during questioning by police officers and prosecutors, the pair insisted on their innocence throughout their trials. But the Osaka District Court sentenced them to life imprisonment in 1999, a decision upheld by the Osaka High Court in 2004 and finalized by the Supreme Court two years later.
The two filed a request for a retrial in 2009. Their defense counsel argued that Boku’s initial confession to interrogators that he scattered gasoline in a garage adjacent to the bathroom at the house and set it on fire with the intention of killing the girl could not be trusted.
In 2011, the lawyers reproduced the act of arson based on what Boku told the investigators — that he first scattered gasoline in the garage and lit a lighter. But in the reproduction held under the same setting as the house, the gasoline was set alight by the pilot burner of the bathtub water heater before it had all been scattered, and the fire instantly spread, turning the garage into a sea of flames. This showed that it was unlikely that the perpetrator himself would have escaped unhurt. In the court proceedings on the retrial request, the couple’s defense said there is a strong possibility that gasoline leaking from a car parked in the garage caught fire from the pilot burner and spread to the bathroom. A prosecution’s re-enactment of the alleged act on the basis of the confession produced the same results as shown in the defense test.
The district court sided with the defense argument and decided on a retrial in 2012. The prosecution filed a prompt appeal, but the high court on Oct. 23 upheld the district court decision — ruling more in favor of the accused by mentioning the possibility of the fire having been caused by combustion of the fuel leaking from the car — and suspended the life prison terms of Aoki and Boku. They were released from prisons in Wakayama and Oita, respectively, this week, and the Osaka High Public Prosecutor’s Office gave up appealing the decision to the Supreme Court, formally opening the process for a retrial.
In convicting Aoki and Boku, the courts concerned took the position that the confession — that they conspired to carry out the arson and murder to collect life insurance money on the girl — was credible. But in its latest decision, the high court said that the motive was unnatural in view of the household’s relatively stable financial situation and the fact that there was no concrete evidence to substantiate the confession. The high court’s fourth criminal division said Oct. 23 that since the possibility of the two convicts’ innocence is high, it “runs counter to justice” to continue their imprisonment, which had continued for 20 years since their arrest.
The couple’s financial situation and the fact that the bathtub water heater in the house had a pilot burner must have been known to the investigators in the first place. But the police, the prosecution and the courts did not pay sufficient attention to these facts. They should scrutinize their actions and determine why they were unable to view the case from a different perspective and find out the truth. If the prosecution had at the start of its investigation tried to replicate the act of arson based on Boku’s confession, it would have seen the flaws in his confession that put its voluntary nature in doubt, and the apparent false charge could have been avoided. The police, the prosecution and the courts should seriously take the principle that any doubtful point in a criminal case should be interpreted in favor of the accused.
Investigators should never try to extract a confession from a suspect in a manner that conforms to a predetermined scenario. Yet false charges based on coerced false confessions happen time and again.
The retrial for the Osaka arson and murder case underlines the need to expand the scope of electronic recording of confessions made by suspects and witnesses. Such recording is limited to cases subject to lay judge trials, which include such serious crimes as murder, fatal assaults and burglaries, arson and rape, and to cases handled by public prosecutor’s offices from the beginning. But such cases account for only 3 percent of all cases handed by investigative authorities.
The government should also make the prosecution disclose all the evidence in its possession to the court to ensure the fairness of trials and retrials.
July 22: Fire Occurs
Sep 10 Confessions/Arrest
Guilty: Life imprisonment (Osaka District Court)
Appeal begins (Osaka High Court)
Aoki appeal begins
Appeals denied ( Osaka High Court )
Appeals denied: Supreme Court
Retrials filed (Osaka District Court)
March: Retrials Granted (Osaka District Court)
Prosecution files immediate objection.
October 23: Retrial Granted (Osaka District Court)
October 26: Aoki and Boku released from prison.
2016 April 28 & May 2
Freed Osaka man swears innocence in girl’s fire death as retrial held
OSAKA – “I’m innocent,” a man who served more than 20 years of a life term over an 11-year-old girl’s death in a 1995 house fire declared Thursday as a retrial was held in the Osaka District Court.
Tatsuhiro Boku, 50, is set to be acquitted along with his de facto wife and ex-inmate Keiko Aoki, the 52-year-old mother of the girl, after prosecutors decided not to pursue fresh guilty verdicts for the pair.
The retrial concluded the same day. The court is expected to pronounce Boku not guilty on Aug. 10.
Aoki is scheduled to go before the court next Monday.
“I did not commit this arson and murder. I am completely innocent,” Boku told the court.
Aoki and Boku were convicted in the district court in 1999 after being arrested in September 1995 for lighting a fire that killed Aoki’s daughter, Megumi, at their Osaka home in July of that year. A ¥15 million ($138,000) life insurance policy had been taken out on the sixth-grader.
The two were released from prison in October last year after the Osaka High Court upheld a retrial plea granted by the district court in 2012.
Defense lawyers had argued it would have been impossible for Boku to have started the fire with a lighter after dousing the scene with several liters of gasoline as he described in an initial confession to investigators.
The high court ruled the garage blaze could have been accidental, based on experiments conducted by both prosecutors and defense lawyers that found smaller amounts of spilled gasoline were able to be readily ignited by a pilot light.
The experiments, which were conducted at a re-creation of the scene, showed an arsonist could not have escaped the fire unhurt.
“I’m disappointed and frustrated that it has taken 21 years (from the fire to the retrial),” Boku said through tears during questioning at the court proceedings Thursday, calling on Japan’s criminal justice system to make sure innocent people are not convicted.
Boku said he did not initially profess his innocence because he “was treated like a criminal, and (investigators) wouldn’t listen no matter how much I protested.”
He said he made a false confession after detectives told him he would be sentenced to death if he denied the charge.
“When the detectives asked me questions that fit in with their narrative, I answered so as to make myself look like an arsonist,” Boku said.
Despite not seeking a guilty verdict, prosecutors defended the investigation, saying the confession was “given spontaneously, although its trustworthiness has since been called into doubt.”
Boku alleged he was subjected to violence during his interrogation, with detectives throttling him by the neck and kicking him in the legs.
“People who haven’t experienced (interrogation) can’t possibly understand how painful and grueling it is,” Boku said.
In closing arguments, Boku’s defense counsel called for an investigation into the reasons behind his conviction in addition to a not guilty verdict, arguing the court had put its trust in a jumbled confession gleaned by prejudiced investigators.
Defense lawyer Yayoi Norii told a news conference a condemnation of prosecutors’ “irresponsible” decision not to clearly declare Boku innocent should be included in the court’s verdict.
Boku’s 74-year-old mother was among those attending the retrial, tearfully embracing supporters after the court proceedings concluded.
Woman maintains innocence during retrial
for daughter’s death in 1995 fire
May 2, 2016
OSAKA – A woman who served more than 20 years of a life term declared Monday during her retrial that she is innocent of killing her 11-year-old daughter in a 1995 house fire.
“I did not do it,” Keiko Aoki, 52, said at the Osaka District Court. “Neither did I conspire (in the girl’s death). I am innocent.”
Aoki is set to be acquitted on Aug. 10 along with her de facto husband Tatsuhiro Boku, 50, as prosecutors have decided not to pursue fresh guilty verdicts for the pair.
But the prosecutors did not request a not-guilty verdict in their closing arguments during Boku’s retrial last week, and have denied that police conducted unlawful investigations.
Aoki told the court she had falsely confessed to the murder of her daughter, and that she “felt like dying” after a prolonged interrogation by an investigator who continued to shout at her.
Lawyers for Aoki told the court they doubted her confessions were made voluntarily and requested that the court remove them as evidence, while arguing the fire that killed Aoki’s daughter Megumi could have started accidentally.
Lawyers for Aoki, in an apparent attempt to rebut the prosecutors’ claims, disclosed to reporters before Monday’s retrial an Osaka police diary that said investigators spoke forcefully and loudly during interrogations.
The disclosed portion of the diary, covering four days, showed that interrogations were carried out for about 10 hours daily, beginning in the morning.
It also said Aoki lowered her eyes after an investigator repeatedly asked her in a loud voice why she did not save her daughter.
The diary stated that tears welled her eyes when investigators said, “Didn’t Megumi yell mommy when she was dying? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”
Aoki and Boku were arrested in September 1995 on suspicion of lighting a fire that killed Aoki’s daughter Megumi at their Osaka home in July of that year.
Based on Boku’s confession that he sprayed gasoline inside a garage and set it on fire with a lighter, the couple was convicted at the district court in 1999.
Boku and Aoki were released from prison in October last year after the Osaka High Court upheld a lower court ruling that granted their retrial plea.
The two argued that the blaze in the garage of their home could have been accidental, based on experiments conducted by both prosecutors and defense lawyers.
During an interview last month, Aoki said she is now trying to spend as much time as possible with her parents and her son.
After she was released from prison in October last year, she started living with her elderly parents while taking care of them and working a part-time job.
Her son, who was 8 years old when she was arrested, is now nearly 30. They communicate with each other via mobile phones that they purchased together.
“I didn’t know how to talk to him (at first) even though we are mother and son,” said Aoki.
But things improved after they went on a family trip together in November, talked things over and slept on a futon side by side. Recently they also went to an izakaya bar together.
Time heals. But it still hurts to think about her daughter and visit the place where she died.
Going near the site of the house they used to share used to make Aoki feel sick, but now she can stand there for a little while.
“There’s still sorrow, and tears well up, but after more than twenty years a lot of things have changed,” Aoki said.
She can now eat shrimp, her daughter’s favorite dish, something she couldn’t do for many years.
Her daughter Megumi, who would have been 32 by now, is wearing a white dress in a photo Aoki carries with her.
“I feel like I’m being protected, and not alone,” she said.