Imagine you’re relaxing at home one day when there’s a sudden knock at the door. Before you know it you’re sitting in a police interrogation room with people trying to get a confession out of you for a crime you know nothing about. Soon after, you are sentenced to prison for three years for a crime you never committed, only to be released and regarded by society as a convicted sex offender for the rest of your days.

That nightmare scenario played out for Hiroshi Yanagihara, a man who, well after serving his full prison sentence, was found innocent of all charges. Following that, an understandably upset Yanagihara went after the people who initially arrested and convicted him, demanding compensation and criminal charges.

As a result, on 9 March Toyama District Court awarded Hiroshi Yanagihara 19.7 million yen (US$161,000) – apparently the value of five years of his life.

■ Forced confession

The crime which Yanagihara was convicted of occurred in early 2002 in Himi City, Toyama Prefecture. After both being raped in their home, two women called the police and provided a description of their attacker; one which the authorities felt the then-32-year-old Yanagihara seemed to fit.

According to the recent decision of Toyama District Court’s Judge Asako Ata, the police conducting the interrogation at the time had asked Yanagihara the exact same question over and over until he gave the reply they wanted. They also only permitted him to answer their questions with a simple “yes” or “no”. Yanagihara also accused the officers of using violence and intimidation tactics to force a confession out of him.

With the false confession made, Yanagihara was easily convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for both counts of rape, serving his sentence between 2002 and 2005.

■ The true rapist comes forward

Yanagihara did his time in prison and then went on to try to piece his life back together as a convicted rapist. About a year after Yanagihara’s release, however, another man – who had been arrested by police a few hundred kilometers away in Tottori Prefecture for his involvement in another, unrelated, sex crime – confessed to having raped the two women in Toyama years earlier.

With this new confession revealed, Toyama courts retried Yanagihara in 2007 and officially declared him innocent of all charges. Not satisfied with his shiny new declaration, however, Yanagihara filed suit against all parties involved in his arrest and conviction, from the police officers who had led the interrogation to the national government.

Yanagihara was also deeply troubled by the fact that his retrial hadn’t brought up why he was charged with the crime in the first place. A brand new trial with him as the plaintiff would force these details into the open.

■ Evidence ignored

It came to light during this new trial that Yanagihara’s time-stamped landline phone record clearly showed that he was in his home at the time of the rapes. The police claimed, however, that the same phone record was confiscated to check if Yanagihara had tried to contact the victims by phone, rather than checking for phone activity during the time of the crime. In addition, footprints found at the scene of the crime were noted to have been much larger than any Yanagihara could have left. While these two highly compelling pieces of evidence to support Yanagihara’s claim of innocence were ignored, the defense argued that it was not done intentionally – they simply hadn’t been brought to light in the original trial.

In the end, Judge Ata ruled that the interrogation methods used on Yanagihara were illegal and there was reason to believe that evidence had been handled negligently. Because of this, Yanagihara was awarded 19.7 million yen (approximately $161,000) in compensation by Toyama Prefecture. The claims against the police, prosecution, and nation were dismissed.

■ Poor consolation

Although Yanagihara’s name has now been cleared and he has received some financial return for his damages, it’s hard to walk away from this story feeling that justice has been served. If it wasn’t for the sheer stroke of luck of having the true rapist come forward, Yanagihara would likely have been branded a criminal of the worst kind for the rest of his life. It can only make one wonder how many others in Hiroshi Yanagihara’s situation weren’t, or will not be, quite so lucky.

Source: Asahi Shimbun, 47 News, Twitter via Itai News (Japanese)
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