The world's longest-serving death row inmate has been freed by a Japanese court that found investigators had likely fabricated evidence in the murder case that put the former pro boxer behind bars for nearly half a century.
The Shizuoka District Court suspended the death sentence and ordered a retrial for 78-year-old Iwao Hakamada, who had been convicted in the 1966 murder of a family and was sentenced to death in 1968.
More than 45 of his 47 years in prison have been on death row, making Hakamada the longest-serving such inmate, according to Guinness World Records.
Hours later, Hakamada walked out of the Tokyo Detention Centre, escorted by his sister as dozens of media and supporters waited outside. Hakamada briefly looked at the crowd and got inside a car without speaking.
Hakamada was not executed because of a lengthy appeals process. It took 27 years for the Supreme Court to deny his first appeal for a retrial. He filed a second appeal in 2008, and the court finally ruled in his favour on Thursday (local time).
"It is unbearably unjust to prolong detention of the defendant any further," said presiding judge Hiroaki Murayama in a ruling statement. "The possibility of his innocence has become clear to a respectable degree."
Hakamada was convicted of killing a company manager and his family and setting fire to their central Japan home, where he was a live-in employee.
The court said on Thursday that DNA analysis obtained by Hakamada's lawyers suggested that investigators had fabricated evidence.
Blood stains detected on five pieces of clothing, which investigators said were worn by the culprit during the crime, did not match the DNA of Hakamada, and trousers that prosecutors submitted as evidence were too small for Hakamada and did not fit when he tried them on.
Shizuoka District deputy chief prosecutor Takashi Nishitani said the ruling was unanticipated and that prosecutors would discuss whether to appeal to a higher court.
The court's order for a retrial makes Hakamada only the sixth death row inmate to get a retrial in Japan's history of postwar criminal justice. Four were acquitted in their retrials, while the fifth inmate's case is still pending.
"We finally tore down the wall of retrial," said Katsuhiko Nishijima, head of the defence team. "We will challenge the court decisions, as well as police and prosecutors that have denied our appeals so many times."
Thursday's ruling underscores Japan's much-criticised closed interrogations, which rely heavily on self-confession. Hakamada had confessed in a closed interrogation that lasted 20 days.
"If ever there was a case that merits a retrial, this is it," said Amnesty International in a statement, saying questions over Hakamada's conviction based on a forced confession and the use of evidence must be answered. "The Japanese authorities should be ashamed of the barbaric treatment Hakamada has received."
Nonetheless, Hideko Hakamada, 81, who devoted more than half of her life to the legal battle on her brother's behalf, said she was happy he is finally free.
"I just want to praise him for enduring all these years," she said, trying to hold back tears and a smile at the same time. "Forty-seven years is an awfully long time."