A Tokyo court decided Monday to grant a retrial to a former professional boxer who was sentenced to death over a 1966 quadruple murder case in Shizuoka Prefecture, central Japan, and who spent nearly half a century behind bars before new evidence led to his release.
The Tokyo High Court decision on the retrial of Iwao Hakamata, 87, came after the Supreme Court sent the case back to the court in 2020, ordering it to reconsider an earlier decision not to reopen it.
The court said it "cannot possibly identify Mr. Hakamata as the culprit," citing the unreliability of the main evidence -- five pieces of clothing he allegedly wore during the incident -- that was used in finalizing his death sentence.
The court ruled that there was a strong possibility that the clothing items had been planted by investigators in a tank of miso soybean paste in which they were found.
It also upheld an earlier decision that Hakamata should not be returned to prison, considering the likelihood that he will be found not guilty.
Prosecutors will decide by next Monday whether to file an appeal to the Supreme Court. Without an appeal, a retrial will be held at the Shizuoka District Court, although it remains unclear when it will start.
Following Monday's decision, supporters of Hakamata refrained from immediately telling him of it so as not to mentally stress him. He suffers from conditions caused by many years of incarceration, according to the supporters.
Hakamata's elder sister Hideko, 90, told reporters in front of the Tokyo High Court, "We've been waiting for this day. It's finally here."
The main focal point of the case was whether the color of blood on the clothing items found in the miso tank could preserve its redness over a year later.
Presiding Judge Fumio Daizen supported the defense's claims that the reddish color of bloodstains on clothing would turn black when immersed in miso for a few months. The defense team has argued the evidence was forged.
Hakamata had always insisted on his innocence but his sentence was finalized in 1980. He was freed in 2014 after the Shizuoka District Court decided to suspend his death sentence and reopen the case, accepting DNA test results that indicated blood found on items was not Hakamata's.
The former boxer was a live-in employee at a miso maker when he was arrested in 1966 for allegedly killing the firm's senior managing director, his wife and their two children. They were found dead from stab wounds at their house in Shizuoka, which had been burned down.
Indicted for murder, robbery and arson, his death sentence was finalized based on a ruling that blood marks on five clothing items found in a miso tank 14 months after the murder matched the blood types of the victims and Hakamata.
But in 2018, the Tokyo High Court scrapped the Shizuoka court's decision to suspend his death sentence and reopen the case, questioning the lower court's reliance on the DNA tests.
The Supreme Court upheld the high court decision over the credibility of the DNA tests, but concluded it should re-examine the case because questions had not been resolved over the color of alleged bloodstains left on the clothing items.
After his arrest, Hakamata had initially confessed to investigators but pleaded not guilty at his trial.
Since the Supreme Court decided in 1975 to act in the best interests of the accused when doubt is left, retrials have been ordered in four cases in which the death penalty had been finalized, with all resulting in acquittals in the 1980s.
Chronology of events related to 1966 Shizuoka quadruple murder case
The following is a chronology of major events related to the 1966 murder of four people in Shizuoka Prefecture.
June 30, 1966 -- Family of four, including two children, found murdered in ruins of soybean processing company executive's burned-down house in Shizuoka.
August -- Former professional boxer Iwao Hakamata arrested on suspicion of murder-robbery.
August 1967 -- Bloodstained clothing discovered in factory's soybean tank.
September 1968 -- Hakamata sentenced to death.
December 1980 -- Supreme Court finalizes capital punishment.
April 1981 -- Hakamata files first appeal for retrial.
August 1994 -- Shizuoka District Court turns down appeal, prompting defense team to appeal to Tokyo High Court.
August 2004 -- Tokyo High Court turns down appeal, prompting defense team to file special appeal the next month.
March 2008 -- Supreme Court turns down special appeal.
April -- Hakamata's sister Hideko files second appeal.
March 27, 2014 -- Shizuoka District Court decides to reopen Hakamata case, Hakamata freed.
March 31 -- Prosecutors appeal decision to reopen case.
June 11, 2018 -- Tokyo High Court rules against reopening case.
June 18 -- Defense team files special appeal to Supreme Court.
December 2020 -- Supreme Court sends case back to Tokyo High Court.
March 13, 2023 -- Tokyo High Court rules for reopening case.