Iwao Hakamada, a 78-year-old former professional boxer on death row for killing four members of a family in Shizuoka Prefecture in 1966, was freed Thursday after nearly 48 years of detention as a local court decided to reopen the high-profile murder case.
Hakamada was released after the Shizuoka District Court also decided to suspend his death sentence and permit his release from a detention house.
In the decision, district court judge Hiroaki Murayama, who presided over the retrial plea, approved DNA test results that indicated blood found on five items of clothing said to have been worn by the culprit was not Hakamada's.
This is the sixth time in postwar Japan that a court has approved the retrial of an inmate whose death sentence had been finalized. The inmates in four out of the five previous cases were acquitted.
But this is the first time a death-row inmate was released following a court's decision to reopen their case and pending the retrial, according to the Justice Ministry.
Looking flushed, slightly hunched but plumper than he looked in a picture taken almost half a century ago, Hakamada got into a waiting vehicle at the Tokyo Detention House in eastern Tokyo late Thursday afternoon.
Presiding Judge Murayama said the DNA test results amount to "clear evidence that warrants a not-guilty verdict" for Hakamada, adding that there is a possibility that investigative authorities cooked up incriminating evidence.
Hakamada "was found guilty by evidence that may have been fabricated and as a result, he has been detained for so long amid the fear of capital punishment," the judge said. "It will be unbearably unjust to keep detaining him."
The Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office said prosecutors are considering filing an appeal over the court's decision to reopen the case.
Defense lawyers told reporters Hakamada suffered from diminished mental capacity due to his long years of detention, and urged prosecutors not to file an appeal.
In Tokyo, the human rights group Amnesty International Japan also urged prosecutors in a statement not to appeal, noting 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 "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 evidence.
Hakamada, who was a live-in employee at a soybean processing firm, was arrested in August 1966 on suspicion 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, central Japan.
Although he initially admitted to the allegations, Hakamada 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 when 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 Thursday's court decision, Hideko and two lawyers went to the Tokyo Detention House to inform Hakamada of the decision to reopen the case. At first, he refused to believe the news, according to one of the lawyers.
"That can't be true," Hakamada was quoted as telling the visitors although Hideko showed him the court document across the acrylic partition.
But after leaving the detention house in a vehicle, Hakamada finally said, "Thank you," according to one of the lawyers.
Hakamada's supporters are now considering checking him into a medical facility.
In Shizuoka earlier Thursday, Hideko said after the court decision, "I am truly thankful." Katsuhiko Nishijima, a lawyer who heads the defense team, said, "Mr. Hakamada's strong desire has finally been attained."