The Yomiuri ShimbunThe latest court ruling has denied the appropriateness of using video footage that records suspects being questioned as a decisive factor in presuming guilt. The high court judgment will likely affect future criminal trials.
The case concerns an appeals court trial into the murder of a first-grade elementary school girl in the city of Imaichi, now Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture. The Tokyo High Court reversed the initial ruling by the Utsunomiya District Court. The high court then found the defendant to be guilty, based on circumstantial evidence, and it sentenced him again to life imprisonment. The accused has made a final appeal.
The initial trial, a lay judge trial, found the defendant guilty, attaching importance to the audio and video recordings of his confessions obtained during investigations. The high court raised questions about this approach, saying, “There is no denying that a judgment could be made based on impressions.”
This reflects concerns that decisions of guilt or innocence, which require thorough deliberations, could be influenced by video recordings.
During hearings in the initial trial, video recordings of interrogations were played for more than seven hours. The district court ruling acknowledged the credibility of the defendant’s confessions, referring to his behavior during the confessions, including his restless gestures.
There is no doubt that these videos affected the impressions formed by the lay judges. The high court ruling stated that “the defendant’s inward thoughts cannot be shown” by the videos, and the court expressed its view that how these videos are assessed can be influenced by “subjective viewpoints” of people who watch them. This assertion is understandable.
Courts should not be theaters
In the past, criminal trials in Japan have attached importance to investigators’ records of oral statements made by suspects during questioning. This has lead to some cases in which investigative authorities have coerced or induced suspects to make confessions. To prevent false accusations and coercion, audio and video recordings of interrogations were adopted in what was called visualization.
At first, prosecutors opposed the method, which they said would make it difficult to obtain confessions from suspects. However, they reversed their stance partly after a series of scandals involving prosecutors.
Although video recordings were initially intended as a tool for guaranteeing the voluntariness of suspects’ confessions, they came to be used as a “weapon” with which to prove the credibility of such confessions.
Of the video recordings of interrogations for which requests have been filed with district courts nationwide for submission as evidence, nearly half of them have been adopted. As circumstances stand now, judges are divided over how to deal with video footage.
There had been growing anxiety among judges about prosecutors using video footage more actively than imagined. Judges are concerned that courts of justice could be reduced to venues for “video screenings.”
This concern was clearly reflected in the latest high court sentence.
The high court ruling also reiterated that it is essential to examine video footage from various points of view, regarding such matters as their consistency with objective facts and other evidence. This perception is reasonable, as it is in line with the principle of fact-finding.
By the end of June next year, it will be mandatory, in principle, to record all interrogations in cases covered by lay judge trials and those solely investigated by prosecutors. With respect to how to treat video recordings of interrogations, judges should fairly preside over trials and offer careful explanations for lay judges.