Japan has a conviction rate of more than 99%. But in recent months there has been a public outcry over a number of wrongful arrests where innocent people confessed to crimes.
It started with a threat posted on the city of Yokohama’s website in late June: “I’ll attack a primary school and kill all the children before the summer.”
In the months that followed, there were a number of similar threats posted on the internet – some threatening famous people, including the Emperor’s grandchildren.
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. It raised the question – why did the innocent people confess to a crime that they didn’t commit? What kind of pressure were they put under?
“I was surprised to have received the email but I wasn’t surprised that the innocent people confessed,” says Ochiai.
There have been a number of wrongful convictions in the past, he says.
“But unlike other cases, the fact that these cyber threat incidents happened to ordinary people who were just using the internet raised the fear that it could have happened to anyone,” he adds.
When Ochiai posted the email on his Twitter account and blog, he received hundreds of responses from the public – most of which were more critical towards the police than the real perpetrator.
Shoji Sakurai spent 29 years in jail for a robbery-murder that he didn’t commit. It took him another 15 years to win a not-guilty verdict at his retrial last year.
“I was a bit naughty when I was young and the Japanese police go after people with criminal records, so my friend Sugiyama and I became prime suspects for the murder.”
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.
Sakurai says his interrogators weren’t aggressive but there have been cases in which the police or prosecutors are alleged to have treated their suspects badly.
Hiroshi Ichikawa was a prosecutor for nearly 13 years – until he lost his job for threatening to kill a suspect during an interrogation.
“I am not trying to make an excuse for my behaviour by saying that others did the same, but I don’t think I was some kind of a monster in making a death threat to a suspect,” he says.
“I have overheard other prosecutors yelling at suspects and one of my bosses boasted how he kicked the shin of a suspect underneath the desk.”
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. …
Don’t be certain that someone is guilty. What you think you know or see may be false. Even a confession may be completely false. If you arrest 100 random innocent people and have cops interrogate them, cops who are told by other cops that they are guilty, how may of the 100 would end up confessing to something they didn’t do? Answer: 100%. All of them will sign a confession or will say they did it eventually as the interrogation becomes more intense. Honesty is not more important than breathing, eating, sleeping, avoiding pain, the distress of being hated by an authority figure, etc.
Most people, particularly members of the jury acting as the fact-finder, have difficulty comprehending that an innocent person may confess to a crime he did not commit. However, false confessions are not uncommon. Some common elements that can lead to a false confession are:
- Diminished Capacity
- Mental Impairment
- Ignorance of the Law
- Fear of violence
- Threat of Harm
- Misunderstanding of the Situation
Understanding what can lead to a false confession is the key to recognizing one in the future …
Coerced Confession Forced Confession False Confession Pressure Physical Threats Youth Deception Emotional Threats Mental Health Issues Persuasion Isolation Linguistic Clues Mental Health Issues Deprivation of Food Inaccurate Answers False Promises Physical Contact Non-Responsive False Facts Several Interrogators Contradictions Youth Length of Detention Exaggeration Low Self-Esteem Fear Desire to Pleas
…Edgar Garrett presents another example of a false confession resulting from extreme interrogation and persuasion by the police. Garrett’s 14 year old daughter, Michelle, was murdered. After a 14-hour interrogation, Garrett confessed. The police told him that witnesses placed him with his daughter shortly before her disappearance. One of the officers suggested to Garrett that he could have blacked out and reminded Garrett that he had once struck Michelle while drinking. Garrett, who had initially insisted that he hadn’t seen Michelle before she disappeared, began to change his story and signed a confession. However, his confession contradicted all the major facts of the case and the police lacked any additional evidence. Garrett was acquitted by the jury. A partial excerpt from the transcript of his police interrogation is provided below:
Garrett: I just don’t remember if I went out, if I did talk to Michelle…. I can’t remember fighting with Michelle on Sunday.
Detective: You did. Not only did you fight but you thumped her. You didn’t mean to hurt her.
G: What did I thump her with?
D: I don’t know.
G: I don’t know either.
D: But you thumped her.
G: Well, I killed my own daughter?
When Garrett kept insisting that he didn’t remember attacking her, the interrogator again raised the possibility of an alcohol-induced blackout.
D: Okay, then what happened next?
G: I must have left her there.
G: And must have went home.
D: All right. What did you do with the stick?
G: It’s in the house. I must have took it back to the house.
This excerpt from Garrett’s interrogation illustrates how interrogators can railroad a suspect into believing they committed the crime.
Most people still do not realize that we invaded Iraq based on a false confession elicited by torture.
what I have learned is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002 — well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion — its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qa’ida.
So furious was this effort that on one particular detainee, even when the interrogation team had reported to Cheney’s office that their detainee “was compliant” (meaning the team recommended no more torture), the VP’s office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qa’ida-Baghdad contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under waterboarding in Egypt, “revealed” such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop.
There in fact were no such contacts. (Incidentally, al-Libi just “committed suicide” in Libya. Interestingly, several U.S. lawyers working with tortured detainees were attempting to get the Libyan government to allow them to interview al-Libi….)
On April 21, McClatchy’s Jonathan Landay first suggested the Bush Administration used torture to intentionally extract false confessions linking Al Qaeda (and 9/11) to Iraq, to give Bush a false “casus belli” to invade Iraq.
Landay’s suggestion was shocking. I called it the “Iraq-Torture Scandal” because of its similarity to the Iran-Contra Scandal, where two seemingly unconnected scandals (Reagan’s illegal sale of weapons to Iran and his illegal funding of the Nicaraguan contras) were suddenly linked. Paul Krugman called it the “Grand unified scandal”:
Let’s say this slowly: the Bush administration wanted to use 9/11 as a pretext to invade Iraq, even though Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. So it tortured people to make them confess to the nonexistent link.
There’s a word for this: it’s evil.
A number of prominent progressives came to the same conclusion, including Keith Olbermann (who calls it “backfilling”), Rachel Maddow, Ron Suskind, Frank Rich, and Dan Froomkin. But serious coverage of this humongous scandal did not go beyond progressives.