National / Crime & Legal

Sides weigh in on hangings but mute on death penalty

Discussions under DPJ rule on executions remain secret

by Daisuke Sato and Takuro Iwahashi


First in a series on hangings

In the execution chamber, a red lamp near the ceiling lights up, the chief detention officer gives the signal and five guards each press a button, one of which triggers the trapdoor of the gallows.

No one will ever know which button actually opened the door.

On a lower level, the death-row inmate’s body dangles from the upper floor, the rope taut from the ceiling to the noose.

Masahiko Fujita, 66, who served as an executioner in the 1970s while a senior officer at the Osaka Detention House, recalled the face of one executed convict, noting he was pale but “looked very peaceful.”

Once the inmate is pronounced dead by a doctor, the rope is loosened and his corpse is placed in a coffin.

Fujita said the rope is tied so its noose comes to the side of the neck, making it look as if like the condemned is bowing toward witnesses when dropped from the upper floor.

The prisoner’s hands and legs are always bound to prevent them from flailing, he said.

The moment the rope is stretched taut, the noose breaks the neck and the condemned loses consciousness immediately, Fujita said.

“Some say that hanging is a brutal method of capital punishment, but I think these are opinions by those who know nothing about how it’s done,” he said. “We take extreme care in the execution process so that the dignity of death will never be undermined.”

The Penal Code stipulates that capital punishment be carried out by hanging.

Forty-four out of 78 prisoners on death row who responded to a survey carried out last fall by a nonpartisan group of Diet members seeking the abolition of capital punishment called for change, including urging lethal injection. Many respondents also expressed fear about the noose.

In 1955, the Supreme Court ruled that hanging is not unconstitutional, saying it cannot be considered particularly brutal compared with other methods of execution.

But many legal experts continue to strongly demand a rethink.

Among them is Sadato Goto, a lawyer who represented a defendant in the 2009 firebombing of an Osaka pachinko parlor that claimed five lives.

During the Osaka District Court trial, Goto argued that hanging violates Article 36 of the Constitution, which bans torture and other cruel punishment by public servants.

The defense team led by Goto asked the court to summon witnesses, including a forensic doctor from Austria who told the court that there had been cases in which hangings decapitated the inmates.

Takeshi Tsuchimoto, a former prosecutor in the Supreme Public Prosecutor’s Office and a witness to several hangings, was also summoned. He told the court that he believes the method could possibly be considered brutal punishment as prohibited by the Constitution. Tsuchimoto said he could barely stand to view the executions. Though he maintained that hangings should be reconsidered, he added that he backs capital punishment and will not challenge its constitutionality.

The district court ruled in October 2011 that hangings do not violate Article 36, and the defendant was sentenced to death.

Goto criticized the verdict, saying: “The court came to the judgment only on the basis of abstract analyses and failed to review crucial information of what will happen to the body of the condemned as a result of hanging.”

Under the previous administration led by the Democratic Party of Japan, the Justice Ministry spearheaded repeated discussions about execution methods — but with no major developments and few details publicly reported about the discussions.

“To change the way executions are carried out, the law will have to be changed. But I see no such momentum toward this,” one Justice Ministry source said.