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Page 46 Vol. 40, No. 1, January/February 2015

If you have news, views, reviews, or announcements relating to international or comparative criminology, please send it here! We appreciate brevity (always under 1,000 words), and welcome your input and feedback. – Jay Albanese

Michael H. Fox

Japan Innocence and Death Penalty Information Center

In December of 1994, Ms Etsuko Yamada, principle defendant in the well-known Kabutoyama murder case spoke at a human rights symposium in Osaka. Yamada was first arrested in 1974, and had already been in the courts for 20 years charged with the death of a mentally retarded child at a facility. The main evidence against her was testimony of two institutionalized children at the facility taken three and a half years after the incident.

For three hours, the audience sat riveted as Yamada described being arrested, strip searched, held in a basement police cell, interrogated morning to night, day after day for 16 days, threatened with the death penalty, forced to bathe under cameras surveilled by men, denied sufficient sanitary napkins, coerced to confess, and massacred in the media.

After 20 days she was released without being indicted. She then brought a suit against the state, went on a speaking tour throughout the country, was vengefully rearrested, tried for seven years, found not guilty, retried, remanded back to the original court, and now, 17 years later, was in triple jeopardy.

Yamada Innocent Again
Defendant Etsuko Yamada speaking after her second finding of not guilty

After the symposium, the audience migrated to a local watering hole. Etsuko and I rode back home on the train. She gave me an important book about the case autographed for her by the author, Keep It. Somehow, I knew that from that day forward, my life would be forever changed.

The more I studied her case, the more fascinated I became. I was transfixed with one word: "Why?"

Shortly after the symposium, I attended the Kabutoyama trial, my first sojourn into a Japanese courtroom. I shuddered at the proceedings on the signboard: “Defendant: Yamada Etsuko. Charges: murder, perjury.” Before entering the courtroom, two suited clerks handing out seating tickets carefully photographed my face with their eyes.


The Criminologist Page 47

Oda #2

Director Oda speaks to the press. The Japanese signs say, “Three Times Not Guilty.”

Freedom from Fear

After attending court, I was asked to speak in a public symposium sponsored by Etsuko’s support association. Another foreigner who knew the case much better got cold feet and bailed out. I was invited as a replacement.

Thinking about the invitation, I sought advice of a senior colleague at

another university. He strongly advised against it. We were speaking in Japanese and I asked the reason. I had trouble understanding, and he said in loud, clear, English, “Because the police HATE Yamada.”

His advice was to attend the symposium but sit in the audience. Keep out of sight.

I mulled over the choices. To sit in the crowd would be to live in fear. And those who live in fear, anywhere, do not really live. I picked up the phone and called Etsuko, “Put me down as a speaker.”

Preparing for the talk, I decided to look at the literature written in English by foreign scholars. Most of it was empathetic glitz meant to beautify Japan. One gem: “the 23 day detention period before indictment (with sparse lawyer visits, no contact with family, no television or radio) is meant to build a human relationship between interrogator and the suspect.”

Not knowing how to translate “human” into Japanese, I decided to use the word “warm.”The crowd broke into laughter.

After the conference, two memorable events occurred. I received a letter from one of the symposiasts, a well-known non-fiction writer. “The Ministry of Justice maintains a detailed list of ‘unfavorable’ foreigners. Do exercise caution in your day to day affairs.”

Nearly 20 years later, I still cognize the letter.

The second event has also long lasting. Etsuko, impressed with my support, introduced me to a single woman- a former staff writer at one of the large Japanese newspapers. Having worked the police beat, she knew the game very well. Things clicked, and we have been together for--16 years!


Page 48 Vol. 40, No. 1, January/February 2015


As mentioned above, researching the Kabutoyama case always drove me to the question of “Why?” Why prosecute an innocent woman? Why is the media so one-sided? Why is the coerced confession so valued? Why can the prosecution appeal a judgment of not-guilty when it is prohibited by the constitution?

Though the answers were slow in coming, I was convinced of one thing: such a horrible miscarriage of justice could never happen in my own country. A coerced confession, testimony of mentally retarded children, vengeful rearrest to break a suit against the state, and the collusive media massacre of an innocent seemed incredulous, impossible to imagine.

Naïveté Nullified.

Little did I know. In December 1989, a young Phoenix mother was arrested for hiring two men to kill her four year old son. The boy, expecting to see Santa at a local mall, was shot three times in the head by one of two men: the mother’s housemate or the housemate’s friend.

The friend reported the incident and soon all three were charged with murder. The only evidence against the mother was a detective’s testimony that she confessed. A confession based solely on hearsay- nothing was corroborated, signed, recorded, or filmed - not even a waiver of Miranda rights. Based on the word of a single detective, Debra Milke was sentenced to death in 1990.

Photo: Michael Fox with Debra Milke

Here was a carbon copy of the Kabutoyama case right in the USA. Child murder. coerced confession, massacre in the media, happening in my own country? Again the question: Why?

I sent Debra Milke some of my articles about wrongful convictions in Japan. We began to correspond and soon I was being processed for a visit. Chained at the ankle and wrist, even behind glass, her story - guilt by association - echoed those of so many other women in prison.

When I first began researching Japanese law, I focused on differences. I began the
Japan Innocence and Death Penalty Information Center ( to publicize criminal justice matters in English. In terms of wrongful convictions, particularly for women, the similarities across borders greatly exceed the differences. To better elucidate and publicize this phenomenon, I began the Women’s Criminal Justice Network (

One day back in 1994 transformed my entire life. A symposium in Osaka triggered my curiosity and the question of why? This same curiosity drove me into the bowels of my own country, and revealed more injustice than its citizenry can imagine. As criminologists, our mission is to instill curiosity, and courage, upon future generations.