Book chronicles lives of death-row inmates

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo News

The previously secret lives and unheard voices of people on death row have been published by a group opposed to capital punishment at a time when members of the public may soon be required to give the death penalty under the lay judge system.

The group, Forum 90, sent questionnaires last year to 105 inmates whose death sentences had been finalized, of whom 78 responded.

Extracts from their replies, expressing regret for their actions, the agony they experience in their cells or their disappointment with the judicial system, were initially presented at an annual public gathering last October in Tokyo to mark the World Day Against the Death Penalty.

Forum 90 decided to compile the book, “Inochi no Hi wo Kesanaide” (“Please Do Not Extinguish the Spark of Life”), “so more and more people will face the words of death-row inmates themselves,” said group member Taku Fukada.

“It has been almost 19 years since I was detained in this four-tatami-mat-wide cell,” a 41-year-old inmate at the Tokyo Detention House says in the book.

As inmates are not told when they will be executed until the actual day they will be hanged, the inmate said: “I feel scared every day, while I remember the faces of the victims whenever I feel like living. . . . They must have wanted to live much more than I do. . . . I wish I could do something good before being hanged.”

Seven of the respondents have been executed and two others died of natural causes before the release of the book.

One of the executed inmates, who was accused of burning two women to death in metal drums, noted, “I accept capital punishment, but I cannot be satisfied with the factual findings” of the courts, which he said were based on falsified depositions compiled by investigators.

“I wish I could live a little bit longer until my two sons grow more,” he said Jan. 12. He was hanged 17 days later at the Nagoya Detention House at the age of 44.

Referring to the day the inmate was executed, another inmate in Nagoya said, “After I returned to my cell from exercise, he left his room with detention officers, saying with a smile, ‘I’m going for exercise.’

“Several minutes later, other officers came to his cell and took his belongings. . . . The cell was occupied the next day by another person,” he said. “Inmates have been hanged in a building where many people lead their lives, but people are laughing as if nothing happened . . . I have to say it’s abnormal.”

Fukada, who was involved in compiling the book as an editor at Tokyo-based publisher Impact Shuppan-Kai, said: “Many inmates responded as if they were writing their last wills. They must have thought it was their last opportunity to reveal what they are thinking.”

On the publication, Makoto Teranaka, secretary general of Amnesty International Japan, said, “Some people view death-row inmates as homicidal maniacs, but this book shows they are as varied as we are.”

Under the lay judge system, six people randomly selected among eligible voters will examine serious criminal cases, including murder, together with three professional judges at district courts and reach a verdict and hand down a sentence, possibly including capital punishment.

With the introduction of the new system, people need to know what death-row inmates think and how they live, Teranaka said.

The 140-page book is priced at ¥1,300 and is available in major bookstores across the nation.