Book gives voice to inmates on death row



Some say they will squarely accept their fate, but others argue they shouldn’t be executed because they did not get a fair trial. Some have deeply apologized for murders they committed, while others have expressed gratitude to family and supporters for their support.

The recently published book “Can You Hear the Voices from Prison?” by an advocacy group that opposes capital punishment, Forum 90, sheds some light on the lives and thoughts of death-row inmates, although it does not provide specific details, including their names and the crimes for which they were convicted.

“We believe it is necessary to inform the public about the realities surrounding the inmates now that ordinary citizens are serving as lay judges and are involved in sentencing people to hang,” said Taku Fukada, a member of Forum 90 who helped collect material for the 198-page book.

Thirteen defendants have been sentenced to death since lay judge trials were introduced three years ago, according to the Supreme Court.

Last year, Forum 90 sent questionnaires to more than 120 inmates whose death sentences had been finalized, asking about their living conditions and what they would like to say to the public.

Ninety of them responded, including a 90-year-old inmate.

It was the group’s second survey on death-row inmates, after a poll in 2008.

“Some of the contributors have already been executed or died in prison. We decided to publish their works to record their words,” Fukada said.

“The handwriting of some inmates became more halting and some responses reflected mental disorders,” apparently due to the stress of living on death row and aging since the first survey, he explained.

Some respondents complained about the legal ambiguity over handing down the death sentence.

“It is clear that I’m responsible for the crimes I was accused of, as a coconspirator, and I realize that because the crimes were unforgivable, I will be executed,” said a 62-year-old man condemned over heinous acts committed by Aum Shinrikyo.

“But I still feel frustrated by the punishment . . . as it was not me who masterminded the crimes, and I did not directly kill the victims.

“I think the criteria for delivering the death sentence are very ambiguous.”

A 52-year-old inmate convicted of multiple murders said that while she accepts the sentence, she wants to be informed of the date of her execution beforehand to “get my affairs in order and to try to prepare emotionally.”

Inmates are not told when they will be sent to the gallows until the day actually arrives, and guards come to take them away, and their relatives and lawyers are only informed of their deaths after the fact.

This has called into question the criteria used by authorities in deciding when someone should go to the gallows, and the secrecy has come under strong criticism both at home and overseas, including rights groups that liken the practice of keeping inmates in limbo to torture.

“Under the current system, a death-row inmate cannot write a last will or even put on clean underwear, let alone file a legal challenge against being hanged,” a 65-year-old inmate said, adding that the condemned’s lawyers should be allowed to witness the execution at the very minimum.

A 27-year-old inmate expressed his desire to be allowed greater contact with people on the outside besides his family, lawyers and a friend.

In the survey, four respondents lamented not being able to converse with more people, even fellow inmates. Most ot the time the inmates remain in their cells.

The inmate also said he wants to undertake paid work in the detention house so he can donate the wages as compensation to his victim’s next of kin. Of the 90 respondents, eight said they engage in prison work.

Since the group’s last survey in 2008, 14 inmates were hanged and another 10 died of natural causes while in custody. Fifty-two of the respondents have filed petitions for retrials and 53 are receiving regular medical treatment or taking several drugs on a routine basis.

Asked what brings them the most solace, 21 nominated meeting with visitors and exchanging letters with their loved ones, while 17 said watching television and DVDs.

The questionnaires were sent out after the March 2011 catastrophe, and many respondents voiced sympathy for those caught up in the natural and nuclear disasters.

“Thank you for giving me this precious opportunity to respond to the questionnaires, but I do not feel like doing so at this time, as tens of thousands of people have died or remain missing and thousands are living in shelters,” one inmate responded in July.

“Although I’m on death row, I can eat three meals a day and take a bath. I’m living on taxpayers’ money at a time when innocent people in the disaster-hit areas are leading hard lives,” he said. “I’m sorry but I cannot respond to the questionnaires now.”

The man was hanged March 29 along with two other inmates on the orders of then Justice Minister Toshio Ogawa, the first executions in 20 months.

The book also contains 52 paintings by inmates exhibited by a private fund that has supported efforts by the condemned to win retrials since 2005.

A painting by one of those executed in March graces the book’s cover.

Capital punishment has either been legally abolished or discontinued in 141 countries, but death sentences continue to be handed down in 57 nations, including Japan, according to Amnesty International.

Around 85 percent of people polled by the Cabinet Office in December 2009 said they support the death penalty in certain cases.

The book, published by Impact Shuppan-Kai, costs ¥1,800 plus tax and is available at major bookstores nationwide.