Did Texas execute an innocent man? Film revisits a haunting question.

Texans will have an opportunity to revisit a question that should haunt anyone who believes in the integrity of our criminal justice system: Did our state execute an innocent man? 
The new film “Trial by Fire” tells the true story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was sentenced to death for setting a fire to his home in Corsicana that killed his three young daughters in 1991. The film is based on an investigative story by David Grann that appeared in the New Yorker in 2009, five years after Willingham was executed over his vociferous protestations of innocence.
In my experience of serving 8 years on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and 4 years as a state district judge in Travis County, the Willingham case stands out to me for many of the same reasons it stood out to filmmaker Edward Zwick, who calls it a veritable catalogue of everything that’s wrong with the criminal justice system and, especially, the death penalty. False testimony, junk science, a jailhouse informant, and ineffe…

Japan opens up death chamber to media

Tokyo death chamber
TOKYO — Japan threw open the doors to its mystery-shrouded execution chamber for the first time on Friday, as part of a crusade by the justice minister to stoke debate about the death penalty.

The move came a month after Justice Minister Keiko Chiba, an opponent of capital punishment, announced a review of the practice after she witnessed the first executions since her centre-left government took power almost a year ago.

At the minister's urging, Japanese media were allowed on a 30-minute visit inside the glass-walled execution room in the Tokyo Detention House, where convicts, usually multiple murderers, are put to death by hanging.

A red square with a cross on the white floor marks the spot in the windowless room where convicts stand with the noose around their neck, before a trap-door opens below them and they plunge to their deaths.

The mechanism is triggered by one of three wall-mounted push buttons in an adjacent room, pressed simultaneously by three officers, although none of them is told which button is the live one that will cause the prisoner's death.

In another room, a golden Buddha statue stands in an alcove for final prayers before the handcuffed convicts are blindfolded and led to their deaths, according to footage by public broadcaster NHK and other TV stations.

"This reporting opportunity will provide information for public debate on the death penalty system," Chiba told a news conference on the media visit to one of several death chambers operated across the country.

Apart from the United States, Japan is the only major industrialised democracy to carry out capital punishment, a practice that has earned Tokyo repeat protests from European governments and human rights groups.

Japan has faced particular criticism for only informing death row prisoners of their impending execution at the last minute, and for only telling their families afterwards that their relative has been put to death.

Amnesty International last year labeled death row conditions in Japan "cruel, inhuman and degrading", blaming the mental strain they cause for tipping many long-term convicts into insanity.

"Each day could be their last and the arrival of a prison officer with a death warrant would signal their execution within hours," the report said. "Some live like this year after year, sometimes for decades."

Room where inmates meet with
chaplain prior to execution
The London-based rights group said it found that death row convicts were not allowed to talk to one another, and that contact with relatives, lawyers and others could be restricted to as little as five minutes at a time.

Amnesty called Japan's use of capital punishment "an anomaly", pointing also to the country's relatively low crime, murder and imprisonment rates.

But former lawmaker Nobuto Hosaka, an activist against the death penalty, said serious parliamentary debate was unlikely now, at a time of acute hostility between the ruling and opposition camps.

"The environment for an all-party debate on the death penalty is worsening. It's extremely difficult now," Hosaka told AFP.

He also said that Chiba, who lost her seat in July upper house elections, may be replaced soon by a new minister who could reverse her attempts to foster discussion about the death penalty.

Surveys suggest strong public support for capital punishment in a country where police boast a near-perfect conviction rate. A February survey for the Cabinet Office found more than 85 percent backing the death penalty.

Opponents believe public opinion would shift if people had a better idea of the death penalty process, at a time when a newly introduced jury system may soon ask citizens to judge capital cases.

Japan currently has 107 prisoners on death row.

Source: Agence France-Presse, August 27, 2010

Intrigue over minister's motive as Japan opens door on gallows

Toyo Detention Center
Execution chamber
TOKYO LETTER: Why did the justice minister, an opponent of the death penalty, sanction two hangings?

MINISTER FOR justice Keiko Chiba stunned many here when she signed off on two executions – then went to see the grim results for herself.

An anti-death penalty activist for 20 years, Chiba was expected to begin a moratorium on the nation’s controversial death penalty.

Instead, she sat ashen-faced through the hangings of Kazuo Shinozawa (59) and Hidenori Ogata (33), after being “persuaded to do her duty” by justice ministry bureaucrats, according to the Yomiuri newspaper.

Discussion has been raging since about her motives. Did the conservative bureaucrats who run the ministry strong-arm her into breaking her principles, or did she decide to go for herself in the interests of sparking a long-postponed debate? At least one of her predecessors – the devoutly religious Seiken Sugiura – refused to sign a single death warrant during his tenure in 2005/6. Why then didn’t Chiba simply do the same? Those questions will deepen today as the Japanese press prepares for a rare look inside the country’s execution chambers. A small group of journalists and cameramen are for the first time to be allowed to inspect the notorious Tokyo Detention Center, where the hangings are carried out.

So secretive are authorities about Japan’s gallows that even elected politicians must surrender recording and photographic equipment when they visit. Former lawmaker Nobuto Hosaka, perhaps the country’s most famous abolitionist, is one of the few to have seen it and then publicise the macabre details.

According to Hosaka, death row inmates are walked from their cells to what looks like a “lounge in an expensive hotel”, complete with curtains and a Buddhist altar.

Below the room is a Spartan concrete basement with nothing except a drain to catch the excretions of a thrashing or dead human body. “Life and death here is separated by a trap door,” Hosaka said last week.

Inmates are deprived of contact with the outside world, kept in solitary confinement and forced to wait an average of more than seven years, sometimes decades, in toilet-sized cells while the legal system grinds on.

When the order eventually comes, the condemned have literally minutes to get their affairs in order before facing the noose. Because the order can come at any time, they live each day believing it may be their last.

Amnesty International recently called the system a “regime of silence, isolation and sheer non-existence”, singling out the same-day execution notice as “utterly cruel”. The hangmen are undeterred by age, senility or handicap: the condemned include 84-year-old Masaru Okunishi, who for more than four decades has protested his innocence of poisoning five women.

Of the more than 30 people who have been hanged since January 2006, five were in their 70s. It is not unheard of for some inmates to be ferried to the gallows in wheelchairs.

Although Japan incarcerates far fewer citizens per capita than the US or many European countries, its astonishing 99 per cent-plus conviction rate means that the condemned almost certainly include innocent people.

Some have quite literally been driven mad while waiting to die. At least five of Japan’s 107 condemned prisoners are mentally ill, says Amnesty, with many more elderly inmates on the brink of senility.

Secrecy and lack of independent scrutiny means that the exact number is unknown. Recent victims include Chinese national Cheng Detong, who was “quasi-insane”, according to his defence.

A few years back I interviewed Sakae Menda, who was framed by the police for a double murder. Unlike most other miscarriages of justice victims, Menda was released – after 34 years on death row.

That’s 12,410 days believing every one would be his last. “Waiting to die is a kind of torture,” he told me, “worse than death itself.” The justice ministry is quick to point out that public support for the death penalty here is 85 per cent. One reason it is so high is that ordinary people have simply never had a chance to debate it.

Another may be that they are increasingly bewildered and angry by a series of violent crimes, often by loners who have dropped off the social grid.

Chiba may have had these issues in mind when she sat through those twin executions last month, then called up the media. The ministry has since tried to control the visit as tightly as possible, and ignored the foreign press. Only time will tell if her strategy – if that’s what it is – has kick-started a genuine abolitionist movement in Japan, or deepened support for state killings of violent criminals.

Source: Irish Times, August 27, 2010

A Walk Through Japan’s Execution Chambers

Tokyo Detention Center
TOKYO — A trapdoor, a Buddha statue and a ring for the noose: the Japanese government opened up its execution chambers for the first time on Friday, taking journalists on a tour of Tokyo’s main gallows.

The disclosure is seen as a bid by Japan’s justice minister, Keiko Chiba, to stir debate over a practice that is widely supported in here.

Of the Group of Eight industrialized nations, only the United States and Japan retain capital punishment. Japan currently has 107 inmates on death row, and no pardon is allowed. From 2000-9, Japan sentenced 112 people to death and executed 46.

“I called for proper disclosure in the hope that it spurs debate over the death penalty and criminal sentencing,” Ms. Chiba, who opposes the death penalty, told a news conference earlier this month.

In July, Ms. Chiba approved — and witnessed — the hangings of two inmates convicted of murder, saying she was carrying out her duties as justice minister. Afterward she said she still opposed capital punishment and ordered that journalists be given a tour of the facilities. She also promised to create a panel of experts to discuss the death penalty, including whether it should be stopped. The panel meets next month.Japan has long been criticized by human rights activists for its capital punishment system. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors civil and political rights, has urged Japan to consider abolishing the death penalty, citing the large number of crimes that entail the death sentence, the lack of pardoning, the solitary confinement of inmates and executions at advanced ages and despite signs of mental illness.

Inmates on death row are not told when they will be executed until the last minute — a procedure Japanese officials say prevents panic among inmates — and their family members and lawyers are informed only afterward, as are the news media. Inmates can remain on death row as long as 40 years, though executions have occurred on average after about 5 years and 11 months in the past decade, according to the public broadcast channel NHK. The Justice Ministry has refused to disclose how it makes decisions to go ahead with executions.

A large majority of Japan’s population supports capital punishment. A recent government survey showed that 86 percent of respondents are in favor of state executions for the worst crimes.

“Any debate should take into account the lifelong suffering that the victims’ families must bear,” Isao Okamura, whose wife was murdered over a work dispute in 1997, said in an interview with NHK.

All executions are carried out by hanging. Foreign news outlets, including The New York Times, were barred from the visit, despite repeated requests to take part.

According to accounts in local news outlets, journalists were taken to the execution site in a bus with closed curtains, because its exact location is kept secret. There are seven such execution sites across Japan, the Justice Ministry said.

The journalists were led through the chambers, one by one: a chapel with a Buddhist altar where the condemned are read their last rites by a priest; a small room, also with a Buddha statue, where a prison warden officially orders the execution; the execution room, with a pulley and rings for the rope and a trapdoor where the condemned inmate stands; and the viewing room where officials — and sometimes victims’ families — witness the hanging.

The inmate is handcuffed and blindfolded before entering the execution room, officials said. Three prison wardens push separate buttons, only one of which releases the trapdoor — but they never find out which one. Wardens are given a bonus of about $230 every time they attend an execution.

Chiba Keiko
Satoshi Tomiyama, the Justice Ministry official who later briefed the foreign news outlets and others excluded from the tour, said that wardens take the utmost care to treat death row inmates fairly and humanely. The Buddha statues can be switched with an alter of the indigenous Japanese Shinto religion for followers of that faith, he said. For Christians, the prison provides a wooden cross. Inmates are given fruits and snacks before their execution, and sentences are not carried out on weekends, national holidays and around the New Year.

He read out a statement from a male warden who carries out executions but refused to identify him by name. Executions “are carried out somberly, and the tension is enough to make my hand shake,” Mr. Tomiyama quoted the warden as saying.

But human rights activists criticize the conditions in which the inmates are made to await their death. They are held in solitary confinement in a cell about 50 square feet, which they leave only to exercise and bathe, both alone. They can request Japanese chess sets, but they must play alone. They are able to purchase newspapers and books, though the prison censors some of the content; stories about last month’s executions were blacked out in newspapers given to death row inmates. Relatives can visit, but friends cannot.

Meanwhile, Japan has a 99 percent conviction rate, a figure critics attribute to widespread use of forced confessions. A series of false convictions have surfaced in recent months, including one of a 63-year-old man sentence to life in prison for the murder of a 4-year-old girl. He was released after DNA tests showed he was innocent. Critics say there is a high possibility that some of those put on death row are innocent.

Kanae Doi, a lawyer who heads Human Rights Watch Japan, said she welcomed Japan’s steps toward more transparency. But “the death penalty should not be enforced by a majority opinion,” she said.

“Apart from Japan and the United States, the other countries in the world that carry out capital punishment are those accused of other grave human rights violations,” she said. “Japan should be ashamed to be on that list.”

Source: The New York Times, August 27, 2010

Officials describe executions in Tokyo as death chamber is unveiled to media

Inside the Tokyo Detention Center, a death-row inmate is blindfolded and his hands tied, as a chaplain continues to pray aloud. The curtain of the execution chamber is opened and the inmate is led inside. A few seconds after the curtain is closed a bang is heard as the trapdoor beneath the inmate's feet swings open. Then there is silence.

Command room (left)
and execution chamber (right)
Up until now, executions in Japan have been carried out by only a handful of officials, and the process is veiled up until the inmate's final moments. On Aug. 27, the Tokyo Detention Center execution venue was revealed to the media for the first time, and officials involved in executions described the process to the Mainichi.

Many death-row inmates receive no family visits with only chaplains being permitted to see them -- out of consideration for the inmate's mental stability. Once a month, the inmate and the chaplain meet in a room inside the detention center. Most of the inmates talk continuously, as if temporarily released from a stifling existence.

The announcement of the inmate's execution comes suddenly. Officials involved learn of the executions when the detention center contacts them, asking, "Are you free tomorrow?"

In the morning, the door to the room adjoining the execution room opens and the inmate enters with a pale face.

"Your sentence will now be carried out," the detention center head informs the inmate.

Most inmates quietly accept the decision.

"I will make up for what I did," one inmate says with a faint smile. "I'll be waiting a step ahead," another says.

The chaplain thanks an inmate for his meetings and touches him, conveying the warmth of his skin. The chaplain does not witness the inmate's death. A lot of inmates are baptized at the detention center, but many turn their eyes away from their crimes and simply await death.

These inmates are continuously told to think about the reason for living. One hour after the execution, a detention center official looks over the body of one executed inmate as it lies in a coffin.

"It's over," the chaplain says.

One former prosecutor who witnessed an execution in 2008 recalled his experience. Two days before the execution was carried out, the prosecutor was summoned by the deputy chief prosecutor.

"I want you to be present," the deputy chief prosecutor said, handing over the ruling that sentenced the inmate to death.

"I thought I had to attend the execution after being convinced, so I read the ruling thoroughly," the former prosecutor recalls.

At the public prosecutors office, a draw is held at the start of each fiscal year to determine the order of public prosecutors who will attend executions.

The inmate being executed in 2008 was not one that the former prosecutor had indicted, and he had never seen the inmate's ruling. He had to be convinced of his own position when he attended the execution. When he read the ruling he concluded that there was no choice but for the execution to go ahead.

Shortly after 8 a.m. the prosecutor, head of the detention center, a medical officer and other officials gathered in a waiting room. About 10 meters in front of them a white curtain was drawn and through it they saw the silhouette of the death-row inmate talking with a chaplain. The inmate was blindfolded and made to face the prosecutor and other officials, and then the curtains were opened. No one spoke during the process.

After the noose was placed around the inmate's neck, the trapdoor beneath him was opened, and his body plunged down. The medical officer announced the time and said "Sentence carried out." The officer then approached the executed inmate, felt his wrist to take his pulse, and checked for a heartbeat with a stethoscope. When the inmate was dead, the doctor announced the time of death.

The process was completed one or two minutes after the curtain was opened. When the prosecutor returned to the office, salt was spread out in a purification ritual. The deputy chief prosecutor gave him words of encouragement, saying, "I appreciate your work."

"It's work so I don't particularly think about it," the prosecutor says.

"But the execution scene still returns to me when I close my eyes."

Click here for the original Japanese story

Source: Mainichi Japan, August 27, 2010

Why is Japan, which uniquely prohibited the death penalty for 350 years, swimming against the global tide toward abolition?

Tokyo Death Chamber
Activists cite a lack of debate. "There is no discussion about this in the media," says Nobuto Hosaka. "Even in the Diet [parliament] the death penalty is something of a taboo because most lawmakers know the abolitionist cause is unpopular. It has become a vicious circle."

The gallows are shrouded in secrecy. When a group of ministers won the right to see the gallows six years ago, they were the first political delegation in three decades. Executions have been timed to coincide with Diet recesses to avoid protests from opposition MPs, prison guards are forbidden from discussing their work and until yesterday few ordinary civilians have ever set foot inside an execution chamber. The justice ministry never publicly releases the names of the people it kills. Still, a handful of former insiders have illuminated Japan's ultimate legal sanction and the people who carry it out.

Former death row prison guard Toshio Sakamoto wrote a book about his experiences. He says that prison guards are rotated every three years to prevent them building up feelings of empathy with their charges. Like the prisoners, the guards are told on the day of an order when an execution is to be carried out.

Discussing the details of the work or whether they have actually put a rope around somebody's neck is "taboo", says Mr Sakamoto, who claims the stress of the work sends some to psychiatric hospitals. "Nobody talks about the rights of the men who do this," he says. "No matter how psychologically strong they are, guards get mentally and physically exhausted serving inmates on death row because it is truly cruel."

Former prison-guard-turned lawyer Yoshikuni Noguchi says on the morning of an execution two burly guards strong enough to control a resisting man take the condemned prisoner by each arm and lead him to a concrete room. The condemned have just minutes to get their affairs in order before facing the noose because they aretold about the execution until the same day. A Buddhist or Christian altar, the prison warden and a curtain concealing the other half of the room are among the last sights he will see. The curtain is pulled back to reveal a glass-encased room and the prisoner is asked if he has any final words.

"It is not unusual for the men to say thanks to the guards or apologise for causing them trouble," according to Mr Noguchi. Mr Sakamoto says he has seen men being dragged kicking and screaming to the gallows, calling out for their mothers.

Inside the room, three guards wait before three buttons. The prisoner is handcuffed, hooded and bound at the feet and a 3cm-thick rope is slipped around his neck. The guards push the buttons but do not know which one has been rigged to open the trapdoor beneath the prisoner's feet.

A doctor waiting with a prison official checks the heart of the hanging man. They wait for 5 minutes to make sure of death and then take the body down, put it in a coffin and ship it to a prison morgue. In most cases, says Mr Sakamoto, the bodies will never be picked up.

Source: The Independent, August 28, 2010

Most Viewed (Last 7 Days)

New Hampshire: Just two votes away from death penalty repeal

Lindsay Sandiford, 62, on Bali death row for 6 years, 'just wants to die'

Florida executes Bobby Joe Long

Oklahoma 'getting closer' to acquiring device necessary to carry out executions

Indonesian court sentences French drug smuggler to death

Florida: Death penalty opponents call on DeSantis to stop execution

Malaysian drug mule due to hang in Singapore gets last-minute stay of execution

Did Texas execute an innocent man? Film revisits a haunting question.

Japan: Death sentence finalized for man over 2015 murder of 2 children

Singapore says most drug traffickers Malaysians, will not go easy on them