The Shizuoka District Court decided Thursday to reopen a high-profile 1966 murder case in which a former professional boxer has been on death row for more than 30 years for killing four members of a family.
The court also decided to suspend the death penalty and permit the release of Iwao Hakamada, 78. Hakamada's release is dependent upon prosecutors agreeing.
In the decision, Presiding Judge Hiroaki Murayama approved DNA test results that indicated the DNA type from blood stains detected on five items of clothing, which were said to have been worn by the culprit, is different from Hakamada's.
"It is unjust to detain the defendant further, as the possibility of his innocence has become clear to a respectable degree," he said, while also indicating that investigators might have faked the evidences.
The Shizuoka District Public Prosecutors Office said the decision was surprising and it would consult with the Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office on whether to file an appeal.
Defense lawyers told reporters Hakamada has remained in a diminished capacity due to his long years of detention, urging prosecutors not to file an appeal.
In Tokyo, human rights group Amnesty International Japan urged prosecutors in a statement not to appeal, noting that Hakamada has been incarcerated for more than 47 years since his arrest.
House of Representatives member Ryu Shionoya of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, who heads a group of lawmakers supporting Hakamada, also issued a similar statement.
The Japan Federation of Bar Associations welcomed the decision, which it called was "epoch-making."
Kiyoshi Fusagawa, deputy head of the association, told a news conference that his group has been interested in the presiding judge's suggestion that investigators might have faked the evidence.
It is the sixth time in postwar Japan that a court has approved the retrial of a defendant whose death sentence had been finalized. The defendants in four out of the five previous cases were acquitted.
Hakamada, who was a live-in employee at a soybean processing firm, was arrested in August 1966 on charges of robbery, murder and arson after the bodies of the firm's senior managing director, his wife and two children were found to have stab wounds when they were recovered from the family's burned out home in Shizuoka Prefecture.
Although he initially admitted to the charges, he changed his plea to innocent from the first court hearing.
The Shizuoka District Court sentenced him to death in 1968 -- a decision upheld by the Tokyo High Court in 1976 and by the Supreme Court in 1980. The death sentence stood in December 1980 after the highest court turned down an objection from the defendant.
Hakamada and his defense team filed the first plea for a retrial in 1981, which was rejected by the Shizuoka District Court in 1994 -- a decision upheld by the Tokyo High Court in 2004 and by the top court in 2008, prompting his sister Hideko, 81, to file a second plea.
After hearing the decision, Hideko said, "I am truly thankful," while lawyer Katsuhiko Nishijima, who heads the defense team, said, "Mr. Hakamada's strong desire has finally been attained." She later went to the Tokyo Detention House in the capital to meet with her brother.