Op-Ed: 'Black Widow' receives death sentence on circumstantial evidence

Posted Apr 13, 2012 by Elizabeth Batt
A Saitama district court has sentenced Kanae Kijima (37) to death, for murdering three men in 2009. But the media in Japan is reporting Kajima was convicted solely on circumstantial evidence.
Tokyo Detention House  which houses one of Japan s seven execution chambers.
Tokyo Detention House, which houses one of Japan's seven execution chambers.
According to a BBC News report, the high profile case in Japan concluded today when Kanae Kajima was sentenced to death for the murder of 41-year old, Yoshiyuki Oide, 53-year-old Takao Terada and 80-year-old Kenzo Ando.
Dubbed the 'Black Widow Case,' Kijima allegedly killed the men for financial gain. And rather than returning monies owed said prosecutors in the case, the defendant fed them sleeping pills and burned briquettes until they died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Kijima, who had entered a not guilty plea to murder, did plead guilty to fraud charges. She plans to launch an appeal to a higher court, claiming each of the men committed suicide after she left them.
Terada and Ando, were found dead at their homes in Tokyo's Chiba prefecture, while Oide's body was discovered in a rented car in Saitama Prefecture. In sentencing Kijima, Judge Okuma, told the courtroom, "the defendant committed the crimes so she could maintain an embellished life" and "there is no room for leniency."
But according to reports from the Japan Times, the Black Widow's conviction "was based solely on circumstantial evidence." The paper maintains there was no direct evidence linking Kijima to the crimes, no witness testimony, and Kajima never confessed.
All three men it was determined, had died as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning, and two of them were found to have traces of sleep-inducing drugs in their bodies. Japanese prosecutors said "these factors" alone, were "sufficient proof of her guilt."
Unlike executions in the US, the death penalty in Japan is carried out by hanging. Charles Lane of The Japan Society, said several years back, "that the entire process in Japan is shrouded in secrecy." In fact, Japan does not even announce the execution date in advance he said, "Japanese prisoners find out on the morning of their executions that it is their turn to be hanged."
What is strange adds Lane, is the death chamber itself is "surprisingly attractive," prompting the question, who it benefits when the condemned remains blindfolded. The answer he suggests, is partly explainable knowing that no Japanese guard can refuse to conduct an execution, "even if he has a conscientious objection to the death penalty."
When the button is pressed to release the trap door beneath the prisoner Lane said, the prisoner drops through the door and:
"His body dangles in a separate room downstairs, until the time comes for a doctor to verify that he is dead. On this lower level, the environment is unadorned concrete. There is a drain in the middle of the floor."
Japan's legal system has received global criticism, in part because because of its 99% conviction rate. Lane suggests its inequalities stem from the lack of independent, impartial parties, and how suspects are processed. No suspect is allowed an attorney during police questioning for example, which is persistent and may last for months.
Furthermore, the presiding judges are employed by the Ministry of Justice, the "same law-school social network" said Lane, who the prosecutors are aligned with. Prosecutors, until the introduction of the a new trial system in 2009, were also not required to share all of their case files with the suspect's defense team.
Finally in 2010, Japan's Ministry of Justice finally opened up one of its death chambers to the media. In the footage below are three buttons pushed simultaneously by individual guards. Only one of the three, activates the trap door. Japan's justice minister, Keiko Chiba, allowed the filming of the chamber inside Tokyo Detention House as an attempt to stir debate over a practice that is widely supported in Japan.
Data gathered by Amnesty International said Japan sentenced 108 people to death between 2007 and 2011. Thirty-three of these executions have already been carried out.
This past March, three convicted multiple murderers were hanged, the first executions in almost two years.
Masami Ito of the Japan Times said during a discussion of appeal processes for those convicted:
"For people whose sentences are finalized, the only way to win an acquittal, presuming a wrongful conviction has occurred, is through a retrial."
For Kijima, convicted only on circumstantial evidence, the hurdles are steep. Ito maintains that the process itself is complicated and difficult. Since the war he said, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations reports only "14 serious criminal cases, including murder and robbery-murder, that involved people on death row or serving prison terms in which retrials resulted in acquittals."
Three years ago in 2009, Japan turned to a jury-type system which uses citizen jurors referred to as lay judges in their criminal trials. This "saiban-in seido," or "lay judge system," appeared to be a step in the right direction but potential jurors were reluctant to serve. Their main concern was due in part, to a lifetime secrecy clause forbidding them to ever discuss the case. Should they break this clause, they face punishment.
In a country where cultural attitudes may also impede the effectiveness of the saiban-in seido system, 73-year-old Fusako Kimura told the New York Times that although she supported the system:
"I wondered, can Japanese really express what they believe in. Can they really express their opinions? To this day, we value harmony. In Japan, to not speak is considered a virtue."
Given the circumstances mentioned above, the question becomes less about guilt or innocence, and more about fair application of the law. But seeing as the Japanese criminal court system tends to throws the burden of proof on the accused anyway, Kijima will not likely escape the gallows.