Sides weigh in on hangings but mute on death penalty

Discussions under DPJ rule on executions remain secret

by and


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.

  • Hanging is still the common method of execution in most retentionist nations around the world. The following are the ‘brutal facts’ associated with death by hanging.

    Immediately before the execution, the prisoner’s hands and legs are tied and secured, the noose is placed around the neck, with the knot behind the left ear. A hood is then pulled over the prisoner’s head.

    Hooding the prisoner saves the officials who have to witness the execution, from seeing the prisoner’s face as he is about to die, and after the death. Not looking at the prisoner’s face is one way of coming to terms with state-sanctioned killing, but righteousness is another.

    The execution takes place when a trap-door is opened and the prisoner falls through. At the end of the ‘drop’ the body, still accelerating under the force of gravity, delivers a massive blow to the back and one side of the neck, which combined with the downward momentum of the body, breaks the neck and ruptures the spinal cord. The prisoner’s weight causes a rapid fracture-dislocation of the neck. Death by hanging is supposedly caused by dislocation of the third and fourth cervical vertebrae or asphyxiation.

    However, instantaneous death is rarely achieved. Death by hanging is not a humane method of exterminating a healthy human being. It is a very brutal and cruel death. The condemned often collapse or faint before the noose can be properly positioned over his head. Death by hanging is often botched, or carried out in such a way as to intentionally maximize the prisoner’s suffering.

    Botched hangings result in strangulation, obstructed blood flow, or beheading. If the prisoner has strong neck muscles, is of light-weight, if the ‘drop’ is too short, or if the noose is wrongly positioned, the fracture dislocation will not be rapid and death results from slow asphyxiation. The prisoner writhes and throttles to death over several minutes. In medical terms – death from cerebral contusion, shock and asphyxia.

    There have been reported cases of the rope breaking during the ‘drop’, which resulted in the prisoner falling to the ground. After officials replaced the broken rope, the prisoner would again have to endure the emotional and physical torture of being hanged for a second time, usually taking place within the hour. In another reported incident, the head of a prisoner split from the body during the hanging.

    When a person is hanged, his face becomes engorged, the tongue protrudes, the mouth vomits and drools, the eyes pop, the body defecates, violent movements of body limbs occur, and the face begins to turn a greyish-black. Although the prisoner may appear to be unconscious, the heart does not completely stop beating for some 20 minutes.

    Most people do not know that a human heart beats on its own – and continues to do so – even when the rest of the body has shut down. This happens because the human heart is hard-wired with electrical impulses. Thus, during a phase of some 20 minutes, the pulsations of the doomed heart become fainter and slower as the heart struggles to maintain its normal function to pump blood throughout the body, intent on keeping the body alive.

    Eventually, the heart lapses into a spasmodic rhythm, then begins to flutter, before it slowly collapses, fails, and finally stops all movement. In medical terms – this is the “true” time of death. The ‘official’ time of death portrayed to the public is deliberately distorted for the obvious reason.

    It has been generally assumed that fracture-dislocation of the neck causes instantaneous loss of sensation. Sensory pathways from below the neck may rupture, but the sensory signals from the skin above the noose and from the trigeminal nerve may continue to reach the brain until hypoxia blocks them. The belief that fracture of the spinal cord causes instantaneous death is wrong – whether it causes instantaneous loss of consciousness seems highly probable.

    One case of a botched hanging was that of Colin Campbell Ross in Australia. The 29 year prisoner was hanged on April 24, 1922 for the rape and murder of a 12 year old school girl. The new rope used to execute him proved to be a failure. The hanging was brutal and gruesome. Ross did not die quickly because his spinal cord was fractured, not severed. His windpipe was torn and obstructed by his damaged larynx. Hanging on the rope, Ross continued with rasping breaths and convulsions. He bent his knees and flexed his arms as he battled against the rope, slowly strangling for more than forty minutes before dying from asphyxiation.

    Eighty-six years later, new evidence emerged of his innocence. Colin Campbell Ross was posthumously pardoned by the Victorian Government on May 27, 2008 following irrefutable scientific evidence that Ross could not have committed the crime.

  • Eric Lee Nickell

    To conduct a humane execution, only a chair, a bottle of nitrogen and an oxygen mask.

    The human body is set up to detect CO2, not nitrogen. If pure nitrogen is administered, the condemned will immediately lose consciousness and simply cease to breathe. It’s like flipping a switch. Simply wait ten minutes to ensure brain-death and then place the body in a coffin.

    The gas can be triggered by an electric solenoid, allowing the five sets of buttons to remain in use.