A U.S. serviceman accused of raping a Japanese woman was arrested by Okinawan police Friday and taken into custody after Washington agreed to the rare step of handing over an American military suspect before indictment.
The four-day delay in hammering out the deal after Japanese officials issued an arrest warrant reflects in part U.S. concern that defendants in Japan don't always receive what Americans consider a fair legal shake.
The U.S. had sought assurances that Japan would treat 24-year-old Air Force Staff Sgt. Timothy B. Woodland justly, providing him with interpreters and access to legal counsel. Details of the guarantees were not released.
Woodland is accused of raping a woman in her 20s in the early morning of June 29 outside a bar in the Okinawan town of Chatan. The case has threatened to undermine U.S.-Japanese relations.
"We have satisfied ourselves that our U.S. service member will receive fair and humane treatment throughout his custody," U.S. Ambassador Howard H. Baker Jr. said Friday in announcing the deal.
Senior Japanese officials have tried to blunt public anger at the appearance of a U.S. serviceman accused of committing a crime on Japanese soil receiving special treatment. At the same time, the officials have sought to address concerns overseas that their legal system is not up to par.
"I believe Japan has the duty to prove not only to the U.S. but to the rest of the world that the Japanese justice system and the police are fair and humane," Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka told reporters shortly after meeting with Baker. "This is what I explained to the ambassador."
The transfer was only the second time that a U.S. serviceman suspected of a serious crime has been turned over to the Japanese before an indictment was issued.
The Woodland case highlights the often stark differences between the U.S. and Japanese systems of justice, particularly related to the rights of defendants. And though Woodland has the U.S. government watching out for him, many foreigners languishing in Japanese jails lack such powerful allies as they face the full weight of the system.
"In some ways, as far as the actual law goes, the two countries are not that different," said Robert Grondine, Tokyo-based partner with the U.S. law firm White & Case and president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan. "But as is so often the case, actual practice is like night and day."
The differences become evident the moment a suspect is taken into custody. U.S. law requires that a defendant have a hearing within 48 hours to determine probable cause for the arrest. In Japan, prosecutors have up to 22 days to issue an indictment, said Akira Fujimoto, associate law professor at Kwassui Women's College.
During those weeks, Japanese prosecutors and police can interrogate suspects for as many as 18 hours a day without the presence of the defendant's lawyers or other outsiders.
One concession that U.S. officials reportedly negotiated in Woodland's case was an assurance that his interrogations will be limited to 10 hours a day.
The Japanese legal system also places a premium on confessions. About 90% of criminal cases that go to trial involve admissions of guilt.
"The penal code prohibits violence and cruelty toward suspects under criminal investigation," the State Department says in its latest annual report on Japanese human rights practices, released in February. "However, reports by several bar associations, human rights groups and some prisoners indicate that police and prison officials sometimes used physical violence, including kicking and beating as well as psychological intimidation, to obtain confessions from suspects in custody or to enforce discipline."
The system's emphasis on confessions tends to leave police and prosecutors weak in forensic tests and other tools used to gather evidence and build cases without the cooperation of suspects. This may be an issue for Woodland, given reports that he has maintained his innocence and claims that the sex was consensual.
Detention is far stricter in Japan than in many countries. Prisoners are forced to sit in silence for hours without moving or looking at guards. When detainees are allowed to speak, it must be in Japanese and under the strict supervision of guards.
Access to an interpreter and understanding of the legal proceedings are not assured.
"Amnesty International knows of several cases where foreign detainees have been forced to sign statements they did not fully understand," the international human rights group said in a 1997 report on Japanese detainment practices. "When access to interpreters is provided, foreign suspects and detainees reported that interpreters appear to be biased in favor of the authorities."
In a point touted as a victory by Japanese negotiators intent on granting him as few special privileges as possible, Woodland will not have access to an interpreter for at least his first 48 hours in custody. Nor will he have his lawyer and his own interpreter present during interrogation in the coming days.
More than 95% of cases in Japan end in convictions, and prosecutors have enormous discretion over whether to take a case. "Prosecutors are thought to have made a big blunder if they fail to convict," said Takao Tanase, law professor at Kyoto University.
Japanese prosecutors face little oversight or judgment by ordinary citizens, given the lack of a jury or grand jury system.
Judges are not drawn from practicing attorneys, have no practical training in the law and are expected to remain aloof from society. Critics say this produces decisions that at times are not grounded in common sense. Japan also has no sentencing guidelines, which can lead to widely divergent outcomes for similar cases.
"Sentences in murder cases might range from five years to the death penalty," said American lawyer Grondine. "It can be quite difficult to understand how they came to a conclusion."
That said, proponents say the system has its strengths. Prosecutors tend to be far more meticulous about proving the cases they do take than their U.S. counterparts, said Tanase, leading to fewer mistaken judgments.
There also are some signs of change, albeit gradual. Reforms under consideration would expand the number of lawyers and create a limited decision-making role for laymen. And suspects gradually are gaining more rights. A decade ago, they were allowed only 15 minutes each week to meet with their lawyer. Now, outside their interrogation sessions, they are given much broader access.
For some, however, Japan has a long way to go. "We still have a lot to do to foster the legal rights of defendants," said law professor Fujimoto.