April 23, 2014
Japanese Trials Have A 99 Percent Conviction Rate
The Japanese famously provide excellence and precision in whatever work they are tasked with, but what if the appearance of success costs somebody 10 years of their freedom? With a 99 percent conviction rate in Japanese court cases, when it comes to the law business in Japan, a satisfactory conclusion comes at a cost.
Talking to Japanese friends about it, it appears nobody is quite sure why trials in Japan end in a guilty verdict quite so often. The most hopeful, and it’s fair to say acceptable, reason is that prosecutors don’t bother to take a trial to court in the first place if they are not convinced of their ability to win. This means that they take a balanced look at the evidence first, without involving taxpayers’ money, stress for witnesses, and all the other problems that come with a long trial. It is thought that because prosecutors are understaffed, they may only proceed with cases that they can easily identify as likely successes.
The other fairly widely believed reason, though, is that failure looks bad, so rather than appear like the police have got the wrong guy (which they might have, in some cases), or the prosecution hasn’t presented evidence successfully, or whatever else a taxpaying public who are baying for blood might accuse them of, they just send down the accused, no matter what (very lucky one percent aside).
Of course, plenty of the defendants will be guilty, but it is only common and mathematical sense to say that probably more than one percent are not guilty.
A major concern, including for several human rights groups, is the prevalence and importance of confessions. Many cases focus on this, rather than a solid and wide-ranging evidence base. The reliability of the confessions is very much in question, though. Traditionally, and sadly it seems still today to a large degree, confessions are coerced through months of pressure during pre-trial detention.
The New York Times reported on a case in which “13 men and women, ranging in age from their early 50s to mid-70s, were arrested and indicted. Six buckled and confessed to an elaborate scheme of buying votes with liquor, cash and catered parties. One man died during the trial – from the stress, the others said – and another tried to kill himself.” All were later acquitted on appeal, with the appeal judge saying that the defendants had “made confessions in despair while going through marathon questioning.”
I was watching the morning news recently and saw the story of a man who was finally released after decades in prison, having finally been found innocent; forced to confess many years ago. I also heard the story, which the BBC covered, of a 19-year-old boy who confessed to making threats against the City of Yokohama to massacre school children, along with similar threats against celebrities. Later, another person admitted that in fact they had made the threats, a confession this time made willingly without the police ever having found or arrested them.
There is no real evidence that torture is involved, but pressure from interrogators’ bosses leads to pressure being put on a suspect to confess and do the decent thing by their family, which in turn leads to good looking but questionable conviction figures.
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