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Making a Murderer and Matsumoto Kenji: The truth can be stranger than fiction

Does this set of circumstances sound familiar?

  • A man from a poor background, with an IQ below 70; a score so low that he has difficulty comprehending what is happening to him.
  • His implication in a serious crime, in which a dominant older relative was the prime suspect.
  • A confession extracted by police after hours of intense interrogation, a confession which was subsequently described as ‘coercive’ by the man’s lawyers.

Well, if you’ve been watching the Netflix documentary ‘Making a Murderer’ you may be thinking of the case of Brendan Dassey who, at the age of 16, confessed to assisting his uncle in a rape and murder after hours of intense police questioning. No lawyer was present during the interrogation, nor was his mother, despite the fact that he was a minor.

Dassey later recanted his confession and one Wisconsin lawyer who assisted on the case on seeing the video of the ‘confession’, described “feeling physically sick as I watched it (sic), he just didn’t understand what was going on”. No physical evidence linked him to the crime and jurors have stated that his conviction was heavily influenced by the confession.

Brendan Dassey is not the only young man spending a very long time in prison after being convicted of a crime following a confession extracted in contentious circumstances.

In 1993 Matsumoto Kenji – along with his older brother – was arrested and charged with a double murder in Japan. Kenji has an IQ of between 60 and 70, allegedly caused by Minamata disease (mercury poisoning) which was common in the prefecture in which he was born, around the time he was born. As a result of the condition Kenji suffered from seriously hampered cognitive function.

Amnesty has serious concerns about Kenji’s treatment at the hands of the police. His interrogation has been described at coercive, as officers offered him food if he talked and told him to “be a man” during the interrogation.

Upon learning of a warrant being issued for his arrest, his brother killed himself and Kenji was left to face trial alone. During his trial it was accepted by the court that he was totally dependent upon his brother and was unable to stand up to him. Following his conviction he was sentenced to death, a sentence which has been repeatedly upheld in subsequent appeals.

In Japan, death row patients are held in solitary confinement and are not allowed to speak to other inmates, only receiving occasional visits from family or lawyers. When they are in their cells they are forbidden from moving, being punished severely if they do. They are also given no prior warning before they are executed, leaving death row patients suspended in an endless state of anxiety.

Unfortunately, Kenji’s mental health has deteriorated significantly on death row, to the point that he has developed a delusional disorder. His lawyers have argued that he is currently unable to communicate or understand information pertinent to his case and they further believe that his isolation has contributed significantly to his deteriorating mental health condition.

These two cases, so similar, illustrate the vulnerability of individuals with serious learning difficulties in the face of major criminal charges, and the difficulty they face in ensuring their right to fair treatment at the hands of authorities in the criminal justice system.

Under international laws around use of the death penalty, it is illegal to execute someone with serious mental or intellectual disabilities. At Amnesty, we continue to oppose the death penalty in all instances and in all cases as it's a violation of the right to life and to be free from torture.

Call for justice for Kenji on his birthday

Today is Kenji’s 65th birthday. It’s the 16th birthday he has spent on death row.

Kenji’s case is currently under review for appeal and the Minister of Justice will be the key decision-maker. If you have a moment, please write to him and call for him not to execute Kenji.

What to say

Please write to Justice Minister Matsuhide Iawki, urging him:

  • Not to execute Matsumoto Kenji and to introduce a moratorium on executions in Japan;
  • To commute Matsumoto Kenji and all other prisoners’ death sentences;
  • To Improve the treatment of death row inmates, including an end to solitary confinement;
  • To promote debate on the abolition of the death penalty in Japan.

You can also write to Health Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki and ask him to:

  • Ensure that Matsumoto Kenji’s health is regularly assessed and he is provided with any necessary treatment.

Who to contact

Minister of Justice, Matsuhide Iawki
Ministry of Justice
1-1-1 Kasumigaseki
Tokyo 100-8977

Twitter: @MOJ_HOUMU

Minister of Health, Yasuhisa Shiozaki
1-2-2 Kasumigaseki
Tokyo, 100-8916


About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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