The enduring enigma of Masaru Okunishi's case

Half a century of legal battles


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Miyoko Oka
Miyoko Oka holds a photo of her brother, Masaru Okunishi, in Yamazoe Village, Nara Prefecture, in November 2023

Known as "the wine murders", the case of Masaru Okunishi, a man convicted in the 1960s for the murder of five women through poisoned wine, remains one of the most controversial and debated legal battles in Japan's criminal justice history. This long-standing case, which stretches over half a century, is a complex narrative of confession, retraction, legal reversals, and the relentless pursuit of justice, highlighting the intricacies of Japan's legal system and the broader implications for the death penalty and posthumous retrials.

In 1961, a tragic event unfolded in the city of Nabari, where a community meeting turned deadly as attendees were poisoned by wine laced with pesticides. Masaru Okunishi, who found himself at the center of this catastrophe, initially confessed to the crime, citing a personal turmoil stemming from a love triangle as his motive. However, before his indictment, Okunishi retracted his confession, leading to an initial acquittal by the Tsu District Court in 1964 due to insufficient evidence.

This acquittal, however, was not the end but merely the beginning of a protracted legal saga. The Nagoya High Court, in a stunning reversal, found Okunishi guilty in 1969, a verdict subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court in 1972. This decision condemned Okunishi to death, a sentence that would define the rest of his life and the legal battles that followed.

Despite being on death row, Okunishi's case saw a series of retrial requests, the most recent of which emerged following his death in 2015, spearheaded by his sister, Miyoko Oka. Oka's dedication to her brother's case introduced new evidence suggesting possible tampering with the wine bottle, an argument that, despite its potential implications, failed to sway the Supreme Court. This steadfast refusal to reconsider the case underscores the challenges faced by those seeking posthumous retrials, a rare and complex legal endeavor in Japan.

The persistence of Okunishi's legal team, juxtaposed with the repeated rejections by the judiciary, paints a picture of a legal system grappling with the balance between finality and justice. The introduction of new evidence in 2005, suggesting a misidentification of the pesticide used in the poisoning, momentarily offered hope for Okunishi's case. Yet, this too was nullified by prosecutorial objections, further entrenching the complexities of legal battles in capital punishment cases.

The Supreme Court's recent refusal to reopen Okunishi's case, with a notable dissent from one justice, highlights the ongoing debate within the judiciary regarding the threshold for new trials. This decision not only closes the chapter on Okunishi's legal battle but also raises poignant questions about the nature of evidence, the right to retrial, and the moral implications of the death penalty.

Masaru Okunishi's case serves as a somber reflection on the intersection of law, morality, and the pursuit of justice. It underscores the profound human cost of legal proceedings, the enduring quest for truth, and the intricate dynamics of Japan's criminal justice system, which remains under scrutiny both domestically and internationally.

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