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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. This article originally appeared in the National Law Journal, a publication of ALM.

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