Accusing the Accuser:
Police Malfeasance, Women Plaintiffs, and Vengeful Arrests.
Michael H. Fox
Hyogo University
Kakogawa City

Published in Criminal Law Bulletin in 2009

Police forces tend to be among the most secretive and least accountable of all organizations. When pressed for accountability or sued for malfeasance, obfuscation and evasiveness are the typical response. This phenomena is hardly limited to a certain countries or societies--the unassailability of police organizations seems to be universal.
Still, different degrees of opaqueness exist among the civil society of industrialized countries. Japan is a case in point. Compared to the western nations, only a handful of cases against the police have ever succeeded in the courts. And even when redress has been awarded, the courts have rarely raised the issue of malfeasance, completely avoiding the question of responsibility.
This paper will examine the arrest and prosecution of women who have sued police. It will use three major cases--two in Japan and one in the USA--of women being charged with murder after filing suit the police. This paper will make the disturbing conclusion that women who bring strong and embarrassing cases against police, in the USA and most certainly in Japan, put themselves in danger of arrest.


Location: Nishinomiya City, Japan
Date: (March 1974)
Plaintiff turned defendant: Etsuko Yamada, aged 22.
In March of 1974, two children (ages 11 and 12) disappeared from the Kabutoyama Gakuen, a school for mentally retarded children in Nishinomiya City, Japan. A massive search involving the community and the mass media came to a frightful end when the bodies were recovered from the school's septic tank.
The circumstances of the two deaths indicated accident. The vacuum of the septic tank recovered many items such as toys, clothing, and eating utensils and dishes. The children used to play atop the cover of the septic tank, and it was evident that the 35 pound lid had been opened and shut several times.
Despite the evidence indicating accident, the police choose to investigate the case as a murder. The deaths of the two children, perishing in a dark fetid doom, grabbed the attention of the media. A high profile murder case is a watershed for ambitious and promotion hungry police officials who love seeing their names in the newspapers and faces on television.
The investigation centred on 22 year old female teacher, Etsuko Yamada. Yamada was one of three teachers on duty when one of the children is thought to have disappeared. Her upbringing, slightly different from ordinary Japanese, attracted police attention. Born in the mountains of central Japan, she was raised by a father who married and divorced three times. And unlike the typical Japanese woman, she was assertive and blunt. After growing tired of repeated interrogations, she decided to break the stress by kidding with the investigating officer. In response to yet another prying question she rebutted: "Tell me, what kind of food is served in prison."
Some three weeks after the deaths, Yamada was arrested with great fanfare in front of TV cameras. The absence of evidence was not problematic, criminal investigation in Japan allows authorities leeway unknown in most civil societies. After arrest, the suspect can be held in a police station cell and interrogated for 23 days from morning till night. Access to attorneys is at the whim of the investigator. Police are free to use verbal abuse; threats and intimidation; restriction of meals and toilet privileges. The aim is to extract a confession, the king of all evidence.
In western legal consciousness, confessions have hardly the same impact. Medieval Europe and the Spanish Inquisition left an indelible mark upon the West, not so the East. When speaking in public, Sakae Menda, the post war first death row convict to have his sentence reversed, is assailed with "Why did you confess.".
The crux of the problem is less the use of violence by police, but the admission of such coerced confessions by the judiciary. In jury-less Japan, the verdict lays entirely with judges. Judges in Japan, most of whom join the bench after passing the bar exam in their twenties, have never worked as attorneys, and serve as agents of social control, not arbiters of justice. The judiciary is not independent: judges and prosecutors are both employed by the Ministry of Justice, and as such, view each other as part of the same team. The formulated reality regarding confessions, is "If you want to make a good omelette, you gotta crack a few eggs."
Unfortunately for the police, the interrogation of Etsuko Yamada did not go according to expectations. The 22 year old would not crack. Being interrogated around the clock by in a small windowless room, battered with questions, made to bathe under a camera, denied a band to tie her thick hair, and given an insufficient supply of sanitary napkins, all this did little to rupture her resolve. After a week, she remained intransigent. Then two weeks passed, Finally, after 16 days, police were able to coerce a written statement: "I believe I committed the crimes while unconscious." On the 18th day, almost nearly out of her senses, Yamada gave in and signed a full confession.
With confessions in hand the next step in common judicial procedure is a formal indictment by the prosecution. But without verifiable evidence or credible testimony little could be done. With the public desire for a scapegoat satiated and Yamada's name already permanently destroyed, the police released their suspect, "pending further investigation."
This story might well have ended here. The police expected their confessor to disappear into some obscure mountain village. The public would soon forget the case; the overseeing detectives would be rewarded for making their mark. The prestige of of the law enforcement authorities would be reaffirmed in the public's eye.
Many plots veer from their intended courses, this one egregiously so. Rather than fleeing to some distant province, ,Yamada aided by a pro bono legal team, filed charges against the police demanding printed apologies in the newspapers and remuneration for abuse according to the State Redress Law.
Three years later, with the suit gaining momentum and getting coverage in the press, Yamada was re-arrested. The argument for vengeful re-arrest is quite strong: the new evidence against her consisted of eyewitness testimony given by former wards of the school--all mentally retarded-- taken three years and several months after the incident. She was tried three subsequent times, and though ultimately found innocent, forced to spend the next twenty two years (1978~2000) in the courts. She was unable to find regular employment throughout this time span, and despite being declared innocent, never received any redress whatsoever.

CASE TWO: Bembenek

Place: Milwaukee Wisconsin.
Date of Incident: May 28, 1981.
Plaintiff turned defendant: Lawrencia (Lori) Bembenek
In 1980, former model Lawrencia Bembenek, enrolled in a police academy, graduated in the top of her class, and began work in public safety for the city of Milwaukee. The women's movement which grew quickly in the USA in the 1970's permeated many places, but not the Milwaukee police department. Bembenek became the focus of bad jokes, disgusting verbal abuse and sexual harassment.
Apart from personal indignities, Bembenek was shocked by blatant police illegalities. She became a firsthand witness to officers taking graft, selling pornography, demanding oral sex from hookers, frequenting drug hangouts, and harassing minorities. She even came into possession of male police officers dancing nude in a public park, and turned these into internal affairs.
During the probe by internal affairs, Bembenek attended a concert at which her police officer friend Judy Zess smoked marijuana, (but Bembenek did not). Undercover agents arrested both Zess and Bembenek during the concert and charged them with "possession of a controlled substance." Zess accepted the discharge from the police force, Bembenek did not, and filed suit against the department seeking job reinstatement.
Bembenek's case seemed to receive divine support-- a thunderbolt from the heavens. At the time, U. S. Federal attorney, James Morrison, began investigating allegations that the Milwaukee force was misusing hundreds of thousands of dollars of affirmative action funds and firing minorities on flimsy grounds. Bembenek came forward to say that women and minorities were being hired and quickly fired to satisfy federal quotas and take advantage of employment equity grants. She was the heart of the investigation, so it was clear that if she became a serious suspect, the case against the department would fall apart.
Such a case materialized. On May 28, 1981, her husband's ex-wife, Christine Schultz (aged 30) was murdered. Bembenek had married Fred Schultz, a detective with the force, the previous January. Though Schultz and several others emerged as suspects, the onus of the investigation came down on Bembenek.
To many legal observers, the arrest looked like an act of sheer vengeance. To the press, Bembenek was a lamb that deserved to be slaughtered. Before entering the police academy, she worked as a model and posed for a beer calendar in a slinky dress. After being discharged from the police, assuaged with bills, and unable to find employment, she took employment for a short time as a "bunny" serving drinks in a Playboy club. Though she never posed nude, she was (and still is) lambasted as a bimbo centerfold.
In cases where there is little proof, and so much face at stake, the forces of authority may well resort to desperate supra-legal measures for self-protection. Against Bembenek, they contrived evidence and coerced a potential witnesses. Judy Zess, the close friend of Bembenek and officer who was discharged for smoking marijuana at the concert, became such a witness. She testified to hearing Bembenek say "I want to blow Christine's head off." In the end, Bembenek was found guilty on the most circumstantial of evidence-having access to the gun determined to be the murder weapon.
Despite the paucity of evidence, Bembenek was convicted of first degree murder and sentence to life imprisonment at Taycheedah Correctional Institute. She divorced Fred Schultz, remarried while behind bars, and became a bit of a sensation after jumping the wires and successfully escaping from prison. The escape was heralded by a "Run Bambi Run" bumper sticker campaign. Polls indicated that many people would offer support to keep the couple out of the hands of the authorities. An episode of "America's Most Wanted" lead to Bembenek being identified and caught in Thunder Bay, Ontario. She was returned to the States, and later released from jail in return for a plea bargain.


Place: Eniwa Town, Japan
Date of Incident: March 17, 2001
Plaintiff turned Defendant: Minako Ohkoshi. (aged 29)
In March of 2001, the partially burned body of a 24 year old woman was found on a road in Eniwa town, on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. An autopsy revealed the cause of death to be strangulation. The police investigation focussed on Minako Ohkoshi a colleague of the deceased.
Why Ohkoshi? She and the deceased left the office at the same time the night before the murder. She had recently dated and broke up with a young man employed at the company, whose attentions had shifted to the the murdered woman. Nearing age thirty, the break up was hard. Several days before the murder, Ohkoshi began a pattern of dialling the cell phone of the future victim. Over the course of one week, she dialled the number 220 times. Most of this was done semiconsciously, and only about 20 of the calls actually rang on the victim's phone.
While the possibility of a love triangle offers much to the imagination, other evidence in the case clearly eliminates Ohkoshi as a suspect. The northern island of Hokkaido is snowed over during the winter. Footprints and tire tracks were found near the body. None of these matched Ohkoshi.
The method of the killing suggests a different culprit. Police allege that the victim was strangled from the behind. This would assume that Ohkoshi lured the victim into her small two door car, climbed into the back seat, strangled her from the behind, and then dumped the body. At 155 cm (4-feet 11 inches) and of slight build, it seems farfetched to imagine such a scenario. Furthermore, no remains of a murder, i.e. DNA evidence, were found in Ohkoshi's car.
Police may very well have had an ulterior motive for zooming in on Ohkoshi, i.e, to protect another suspect. At the onset of the investigation, they soon learned that one employee at the office where the two women worked was the son of a police official. Considering the hierarchical structure of police organizations, and multiply this effect by the very collective structure of the Japanese organization, one of the key suspects was protected by a inexorable sociological shield.
Further evidence of a cover-up abounds. Police leaked Ohkoshi's name to the press in the incipient stages of the investigation, long before an arrest was made. Investigations are usually conducted secretly in order to prevent potential suspects from fleeing of destroying evidence. Two days after the dead body was discovered, Ohkoshi came out of her home and was shocked to find that a media crew filming her every motion. The strategy is to annoy and harass suspects, to soften them up before interrogations.
Time went by and pressure began to mount for an arrest. Ohkoshi was called into the police station for voluntary questioning. She spent a whole day there discussing the case, and was requested to come back the next day. Two days soon turned into three and then four days. She contacted a local lawyer who accompanied her to the station for the fourth day.
Police let up for a while and then called Ohkoshi back while her lawyer was away on a business trip. The interrogators became verbally abusive. Screaming violently, they called Ohkoshi "an un-marriageable old bag" and demanded she confess. When she tired to leave, a detective blocked the way, and Ohkoshi feinted. Some friends picked her up at the station. The next day she was diagnosed with a nervous breakdown and admitted into a hospital.
While hospitalized, her attorney filed suit against the police seeking $25,000 in redress for abuse of power. Four weeks later, Ohkoshi was discharged from the hospital. The very next morning, she was arrested at her home and charged with murder. She was tried twice, found guilty, and and is now serving a 17 year sentence.
This paper has examined three separate instances of women who have sued police organizations for illegal confinement and wrongful arrest in two different countries: Japan and the USA. In all cases, the women were vengefully arrested and charged with murder. Two were sentenced to prison, one gave 22 years of her life in a marathon court case to set the record straight. Of the three, one remains in prison with many years of labor ahead. While further research on this topic is necessary, it is this author's hope that woman who suffer harassment and choose to sue police organizations should be highly conscious of vengeful repercussions.


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