TOKYO — Iwao Hakamada was a wiry former boxer in his 30s when he was thrown in jail for the killing of a family of four that shocked 1960s Japan. On Thursday, he limped from his cell on death row, a bewildered-looking 78-year-old who, his family fears, may have lost his mind in prison.
It took the courts nearly half a century to conclude that the evidence against him may have been fabricated by police investigators, and to order the retrial he sought.
The decision on Thursday to release Mr. Hakamada, thought to be the world’s longest serving death row inmate, underscored the dark side of a criminal justice system that boasts a near-100 percent conviction rate and immediately led to calls for reform.
Critics have long charged that Japanese prosecutors maintain that rate in part by relying heavily on confessions — instead of building cases based on solid evidence — sometimes wresting the admissions of guilt from innocent people too frightened or agitated to resist police pressure.
With much of the evidence against Mr. Hakamada now discredited, the case rests on what his family and international human rights activists say is just such a flawed confession.
Mr. Hakamada has consistently testified that he admitted guilt only after an intense interrogation in which he was beaten with sticks, deprived of sleep and forced to urinate in a makeshift urinal in the interrogation room. Police records show the questioning went on for 240 hours over 20 days.
Mr. Hakamada retracted the confession soon after he made it.
In announcing the decision to free him, the presiding judge, Hiroaki Murayama, said in a statement that “the possibility of his innocence has become clear to a respectable degree, and it is unbearably unjust to prolong the defendant’s detention any further.”
Japan’s criminal justice system has come under increasing scrutiny over the past decade, after a number of high-profile cases seemed to point to miscarriages of justice, including a case in 2007 in which a court found that 13 men and women had been forced to confess to a bizarre scheme of buying electoral votes with liquor and cash. One tried to commit suicide before being exonerated.
As part of continuing reforms, Japan introduced a jury system in 2009 for most criminal cases, and defense lawyers now have more discovery rights and other protections. But Japan’s conviction rate, which is higher than 99 percent, has not changed significantly. And attempts to require investigators to record interrogations have faced significant resistance from the police and prosecutors, who have tried to limit the scale and scope of those requirements and to maintain discretion for when a recording machine can be turned off.
“Things are turning in the Japanese criminal justice system,” Mr. Johnson said. “But Japan is traveling that road very slowly.”
The United States justice system has also come under significant scrutiny because of false convictions. The Innocence Project, based in New York, says more than 300 convicted prisoners have been exonerated in the United States based on DNA evidence.
Japan’s conviction rate cannot be compared directly with that of the United States. There is no plea bargaining in Japan, and prosecutors put forward only cases they are confident they will win. But experts say that the system is vulnerable to mistakes because acquittals can be considered harmful to the careers of prosecutors and judges alike. Even with jury trials, judges still have a say in many decisions.
Local news media said prosecutors intend to appeal the court’s decision on Mr. Hakamada. On Thursday, Amnesty International, which has championed his case, said in a statement that “it would be most callous and unfair of prosecutors to appeal the court’s decision,” adding, “Time is running out for Hakamada to receive the fair trial he was denied more than four decades ago.”
“If ever there was a case that merits a retrial, this is it,” wrote Roseann Rife, East Asia research director at Amnesty International, in the statement.
Mr. Hakamada’s release was front-page news and generated an outpouring of sympathy and grief. Among those calling for reform was a former appeals court judge, who suggested a discussion of capital punishment in an interview with NHK.
Other critics demanded that the justice system move more quickly. Mr. Hakamada’s conviction and death sentence in 1968 were upheld by a Tokyo appeals court in 1976, and by the Supreme Court in 1980, which made him eligible to be executed at any time. Although his defense team filed its first plea for a retrial the next year, it took almost three more decades to make its way through the courts, only to be rejected in 2008. The decision Thursday was in answer to a second plea for a retrial. Yoshihide Suga, the top government spokesman, said he was not in a position to comment on individual court rulings.
Mr. Hakamada’s case was championed over the years by activists, his sister and some of his former boxing colleagues who have raised funds for his defense. A local boxing federation has kept a ringside seat empty for him. Among his other supporters was one of the judges who handed down his death sentence. That judge, Norimichi Kumamoto, later expressed his misgivings. In a retrial petition earlier this year, he said that he had believed Mr. Hakamada was innocent, but that he was overruled by two other judges in the case. He resigned seven months after the initial ruling and, according to local media, considered suicide.
On Thursday, ill from cancer and speaking with great difficulty, he appeared on national TV, pumping his fists in the air, his eyes brimming with tears.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said. “I wish I had spoken up more back then.”