January 10, 2013

Innocent Confessions, Japanese Version

Regular readers should know by now that anyone who says “an innocent person would never confess to a crime they didn’t commit” is either ignorant or willfully blind. Research, not to mention numerous exonerations, show that it’s not unheard of for someone in the American criminal justice system to confess to a crime they didn’t commit (here is another recent, local, example). Doesn’t mean every confession is false, but it does mean they can’t simply be taken at face value.

It’s a problem, but at least we can take comfort in knowing it’s not a part of that American exceptionalism we hear about so often. As this BBC report shows, the problem of coerced false confessions is bubbling to the surface in Japan, spurred by an audacious (and unethical) stunt.

It started with threats made on the Internet against various high profile people. The police then sprang into action:
After a police investigation, four people were arrested. Two, including a 19-year-old student, confessed while in custody.

But on 9 October, the real perpetrator sent an email to a lawyer - Yoji Ochiai - and local media, explaining how he or she made those threats by taking control of innocent internet users' computers with a virus.

His or her purpose, as stated in the email to Ochiai, was ‘to expose the police and prosecutors' abomination’.

And in a way, it did.
Ochiai was surprised – not at the false confessions, but by the email itself. As the case of Shoji Sakura, who spent nearly 30 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit shows, the techniques used to produce his false confession sound familiar to American ears:
When arrested, aged just 20, he was treated like a guilty criminal, he says.

‘They interrogated me day and night, telling me to confess. After five days, I had no mental strength left so I gave up and confessed.’

‘It may be difficult for people to understand, but being denounced repeatedly - it is harder than you think,’ he adds.
But, of course, Japan is not the United States, either in its criminal procedure or its underlying culture. For example, police interrogations take place without being recorded and the person being questioned doesn’t get to have an attorney with them. More than that, however, is this fascinating overlay from a sidebar to the BBC piece, an excerpt from People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry:
Japanese courts attach great importance to motive. The reasoning and impulses which led to a crime must be proved in a court; they are a crucial factor in determining a convicted criminal's sentence. The who, what, where and when are not enough: a Japanese judge demands to know why. A detective, then, is obliged to get inside his subject's skull - if he fails to do that, he is not considered to have done his job. In reality the only way to do this is by obtaining a confession.
By contrast, motive plays a very small role in American substantive law, so that desire to answer the “why?” question doesn’t have as much force.*

Then there are different cultural considerations that might lead to a false confession in Japan:
Japanese society’s emphasis on shame and consideration towards their family also plays a role.

Sakurai says he was told that his mother suggested he confessed - he doubts this but cannot ask her as she had passed away before he was freed.

The father of the 19-year-old student who confessed to June's cyber threat said in a statement to the media that consideration to the family was what motivated his son to ‘misrepresent the fact and confess’.
For all that’s different, there’s something depressingly familiar as well - the pressure on cops and prosecutors to get a confession (and the resulting conviction), even if it’s complete fiction. One former prosecutor, who was fired after threatening to kill a suspect, explained:
Another thing he regrets - aside from making the death threat - is writing up a confession statement which did not correspond with the truth.

‘After I grilled the suspect for eight hours, I got him to sign this statement even though he didn’t say a single word of it,’ he says.

‘My boss was pressuring me to get his confession so I thought I couldn't go home without it.’

For Ichikawa, it didn't matter if it was true or false as long as he had the confession.
Is Ichikawa an outlier, either in Japan or the United States? Certainly. But imagine how much damage an outlier like that can do to the lives of people whose only crime is being roped into the investigation of a crime they had nothing to do with. When a skilled interrogator pushes as hard as he can, it can lead to horrible results:

Regardless of geography, the criminal justice system, and society in general, needs to recognize the reality of false confessions and do more to prevent them.

* Don’t confuse “motive” with various mental states related to intent or lack thereof. A man who kills his wife intentionally and with malice is guilty of murder, but only manslaughter if he kills in the heat of passion. It makes no difference if the motive for the killing – the wife was sleeping around – is the same.

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