In 1966, the former professional boxer-turned-factory worker was accused of robbery, arson and the murder of his boss, his boss’ wife and their two children. The family was found stabbed to death in their incinerated home in Shizuoka, central Japan.
Iwao initially admitted to all charges before changing his plea at trial. He was sentenced to death in a 2-1 decision by judges, despite repeatedly alleging that police had fabricated evidence and forced him to confess by beating and threatening him. The one dissenting judge stepped down from the bar six months later, demoralized by his inability to stop the sentencing.
A pair of blood-spattered, black trousers and his confession were the evidence against Iwao. The alleged motive ranged from a murder by request to theft.
That means Iwao could go back to prison and face the death penalty — again.
His legal team has launched an appeal to get a retrial and is waiting to hear from the Supreme Court.
But in Japan, where the criminal justice system has a 99.9% conviction rate, clearing his name will not be easy.
The youngest of six siblings, Iwao grew up in the seaside city of Hamamatsu, around two hours from Tokyo by train.
The family was poor but enjoyed a happy and stable environment, says Hideko Hakamada, Iwao’s 86-year-old sister, who has campaigned to clear his name. Iwao now suffers from mental illness brought on by decades of imprisonment.
As children, the siblings went fishing by the seaside during summer and roasted garlic cloves amongst the fallen leaves in their yard in autumn. Only three years apart in age, Hideko and her little brother — who she describes as calm and quiet — were close. “He was like my shadow. He would follow me around everywhere,” Hideko remembers.
As the pair grew up, Hideko got married and Iwao started working in a bodybuilding gym. A colleague encouraged him to take up boxing.
In 1961, Iwao retired after he fell ill and got a job as a factory worker at a soybean processing plant in Shizuoka. At the time, he was divorced and had a son.
On June 30, 1966, the news broke that Iwao’s boss and family had been murdered in the early hours of the morning.
From the start, the odds were stacked against Iwao. As a former boxer and divorcee who had also worked in a bar, the police considered him a low-life and the most likely suspect, says Tsunogae.
On July 4, 1966, the police brought Iwao in for questioning.
At the time, many media outlets falsely reported that a blood-stained shirt found at the scene of the crime belonged to Iwao. The police let him go due to a lack of evidence and continued their investigations for a month.
After coming to a dead end, officers circled back to interviewing Iwao and his family members. Tsunogae alleges the police were desperate for a suspect and keen to pin the crime on Iwao.
They were taken to the police station and interrogated separately from morning till nightfall. Back at their mother’s house, the family swapped notes about what they’d each been asked.
But Iwao was kept in solitary confinement at the station with no access to legal counsel. His ordeal was just beginning.
99% conviction rate
But in the US, for example, alleged offenders are entitled to remain silent during police questioning, have the right to legal representation both outside of and during questioning, and can make a deal to admit a less serious charge. This allows the prosecutor to drop a case and file an indictment from, for example, first degree murder to second degree murder.
Though plea bargains were introduced in 2016, their use is limited to categories such as corporate malfeasance, according to Colin Jones, a law professor at Doshisha University, although defendants who cooperate can expect a more lenient sentence.
The 99% conviction rate is partly because prosecutors only pursue cases they believe will lead to a guilty verdict, according to Mark Ramseyer, a law professor at Harvard University.
“There are very few prosecutors in Japan. They are massively overworked. Given the workload, they focus first on the slam dunk, guilty-as-sin cases. They don’t have time for the ‘maybe he did it, maybe he didn’t cases,'” says Ramseyer.
And because crime rates are so low in Japan, if someone is arrested or prosecuted, people generally assume they have done something wrong, says Jones.
“They only realize Japan’s criminal justice system is not functioning when they are personally caught up in it,” he says.
‘Hostage justice’ system?
Hideko says her brother fell victim to “hostage justice,” when police allegedly strip suspects of their right to remain silent and coerce them to confess.
Towards the end of the trial, they said he had wanted money.
In most democracies, a confession obtained after more than 200 hours of interrogation would be ruled as involuntary, unreliable, and inadmissible as evidence, adds Johnson. But not so in Japan.
In Iwao’s case, police and prosecutors composed 45 confession statements, which they presented to the judges. Only one was accepted to be admissible as evidence.
In January, Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn, who fled criminal prosecution in Japan, pointed to his time in solitary confinement and blasted the Japanese legal system, saying it “violates the most basic principles of humanity.”
But over the decades, other high-profile cases have highlighted miscarriages of justice.
In 2009, Toshikazu Sugaya was freed in a rare judicial reversal that sent shock waves through the country’s justice system. In 1990, he was falsely convicted of the rape and murder of a four-year-old girl following a confession extracted under duress.
Attempts to make investigators record interrogations have faced resistance from the police and prosecutors, who have tried to limit the scale and scope of those requirements, according to Osamu Niikura, a lawyer and member of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations (JFBA).
But in Japan, the price for a miscarriage of justice can be death.
A thorny issue
Hideko used to think the death penalty was a reasonable punishment for those who committed terrible crimes, until she saw the effect its sentencing had on her brother.
For the first 20 years of imprisonment, Iwao believed that one day he would be set free. He applied himself to his studies, found solace in God, and wrote frequent letters home. In each one, he told his mom he was innocent and asked after his son.
Hideko says his optimism gave her hope.
But in 1980, after Japan’s Supreme Court finalized Iwao’s death penalty, he was transferred to a prison exclusively for death row inmates.
The day after Iwao arrived there, the guards took the man in the cell next to his off to the gallows. “I thought they did that deliberately to break Iwao’s spirit,” says Hideko. “Iwao told me that that man shouted out his farewells to the other inmates as he was taken away.”
Soon after, Iwao’s letters home became more sporadic. His once clear handwriting slipped into scrawls. For over a decade starting from the 1990s, Hideko’s attempts to see Iwao were rejected.
They were finally able to meet after Hideko appealed to a member of parliament in Tokyo for help. But when the siblings finally reunited, Iwao didn’t seem to remember who he was, she says.
Unlike in the US where execution dates are set in advance, death row prisoners in Japan are executed in secret, with no advance warning given to the prisoner, their family nor legal representatives, according to Amnesty International.
Usually, inmates must be executed within six months of their sentencing hearing. But Tsunogae says this rarely happens, and many end up waiting years.
Capital punishment is usually reserved for those who have committed multiple murders. All executions are carried out by hanging.
In Japan, the public supports the death penalty; 80% of respondents in a 2019 report released by the Cabinet Office said they were in favor. Only 9% opposed it.
‘In his own world’
Over the decades, Iwao has garnered a loyal following of supporters.
Artists and sportsmen as well as non-profit groups and volunteers have all joined the call to clear his name, and cast a spotlight on the plight of death row inmates, who like Iwao can end up with mental illness.
Though Iwao will likely never return to full mental health, Hideko says her brother has gotten healthier and lost the limp he had while on death row. He has a routine: he wakes early and goes for a four-hour stroll along the streets of Hamamatsu with a volunteer. “He’s just in his own world now,” says Hideko.
Hideko usually gives him 500 yen ($4) so he can buy himself snack on the walk. He sometimes ends up giving it to young children. Iwao has not seen his son since he went to prison, but Hideko suspects that he remembers that he once had a child.
Back at their shared home, Iwao is mostly silent. Once in a while, he contributes a word or two to the conversation before picking a Kleenex, which he neatly folds into squares — a habit he picked up on death row, says Hideko.
Till this day, it is not clear who killed Iwao’s boss, his boss’ wife and their two children. Under Japanese law, Iwao is still recognized as a convicted killer under the sentence of death.
For now, Hideko says that the best thing for Iwao would be to remain free. Despite the odds, she is committed to clearing her brother’s name and to changing people’s perceptions of the death penalty.
“Society has prejudices against people who were on death row,” says Hideko. “But someone who committed a crime, or who finds themselves on death row, is still a human.”
CNN’s Junko Ogura contributed to this report.
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